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J Vis. 2017 Sep 1;17(11):5. doi: 10.1167/17.11.5.

One visual search, many memory searches: An eye-tracking investigation of hybrid search.

Author information

University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, USA.
University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.
Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, MA, USA.
Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA.


Suppose you go to the supermarket with a shopping list of 10 items held in memory. Your shopping expedition can be seen as a combination of visual search and memory search. This is known as "hybrid search." There is a growing interest in understanding how hybrid search tasks are accomplished. We used eye tracking to examine how manipulating the number of possible targets (the memory set size [MSS]) changes how observers (Os) search. We found that dwell time on each distractor increased with MSS, suggesting a memory search was being executed each time a new distractor was fixated. Meanwhile, although the rate of refixation increased with MSS, it was not nearly enough to suggest a strategy that involves repeatedly searching visual space for subgroups of the target set. These data provide a clear demonstration that hybrid search tasks are carried out via a "one visual search, many memory searches" heuristic in which Os examine items in the visual array once with a very low rate of refixations. For each item selected, Os activate a memory search that produces logarithmic response time increases with increased MSS. Furthermore, the percentage of distractors fixated was strongly modulated by the MSS: More items in the MSS led to a higher percentage of fixated distractors. Searching for more potential targets appears to significantly alter how Os approach the task, ultimately resulting in more eye movements and longer response times.

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