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J Vis. 2008 Feb 15;8(2):2.1-19. doi: 10.1167/8.2.2.

Task-demands can immediately reverse the effects of sensory-driven saliency in complex visual stimuli.

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1
Division of Biology, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, USA. wolfgang.einhaeuser@inf.ethz.ch

Abstract

In natural vision both stimulus features and task-demands affect an observer's attention. However, the relationship between sensory-driven ("bottom-up") and task-dependent ("top-down") factors remains controversial: Can task-demands counteract strong sensory signals fully, quickly, and irrespective of bottom-up features? To measure attention under naturalistic conditions, we recorded eye-movements in human observers, while they viewed photographs of outdoor scenes. In the first experiment, smooth modulations of contrast biased the stimuli's sensory-driven saliency towards one side. In free-viewing, observers' eye-positions were immediately biased toward the high-contrast, i.e., high-saliency, side. However, this sensory-driven bias disappeared entirely when observers searched for a bull's-eye target embedded with equal probability to either side of the stimulus. When the target always occurred in the low-contrast side, observers' eye-positions were immediately biased towards this low-saliency side, i.e., the sensory-driven bias reversed. Hence, task-demands do not only override sensory-driven saliency but also actively countermand it. In a second experiment, a 5-Hz flicker replaced the contrast gradient. Whereas the bias was less persistent in free viewing, the overriding and reversal took longer to deploy. Hence, insufficient sensory-driven saliency cannot account for the bias reversal. In a third experiment, subjects searched for a spot of locally increased contrast ("oddity") instead of the bull's-eye ("template"). In contrast to the other conditions, a slight sensory-driven free-viewing bias prevails in this condition. In a fourth experiment, we demonstrate that at known locations template targets are detected faster than oddity targets, suggesting that the former induce a stronger top-down drive when used as search targets. Taken together, task-demands can override sensory-driven saliency in complex visual stimuli almost immediately, and the extent of overriding depends on the search target and the overridden feature, but not on the latter's free-viewing saliency.

PMID:
18318628
DOI:
10.1167/8.2.2
[Indexed for MEDLINE]
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