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Nurit Gronau, Meytal Shachar; Vision at a glance: the role of attention in the contextual facilitation of visual object recognition. Journal of Vision 2010;10(7):1261. doi: 10.1167/10.7.1261.
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© ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)
Everyday objects are typically embedded within a rich visual setting, surrounded by other contextually related objects. Despite limitations in processing multiple stimuli simultaneously, meaningful associations between objects can enhance visual recognition by activating a familiar contextual schema (e.g., Gronau, Neta, & Bar, 2008). The present study investigated the role of attention in the perception of object-to-object relations, and in the contextual facilitation of visual recognition. Specifically, we asked whether an irrelevant object located outside the focus of attention can facilitate recognition of a contextually associated, task-relevant (attended) target object. Subjects performed an object classification task for associated object pairs that were presented for a brief duration (59ms, masked). Objects were either positioned in proper relative locations that matched a familiar contextual schema (spatially consistent condition, e.g., a sandwich on a plate) or in improper relative locations that did not match a familiar contextual schema (spatially inconsistent condition, e.g., a sandwich under a plate). When both stimuli were attended and were relevant to task requirements, RTs to the spatially consistent object pairs were significantly shorter than to the spatially inconsistent pairs. These contextual effects disappeared, however, when visual attention was drawn to one of the two objects, while its counterpart object was unattended and irrelevant to task requirements. Follow-up experiments further explored the specific attentional conditions under which contextual associations facilitate object recognition. Our results reveal that contextual facilitation is a robust phenomenon that occurs under a variety of visual and attentional conditions, even when objects are merely glanced for a brief duration. Contextual facilitation disappears, however, if the associated information is strictly unattended, despite evidence for the coarse processing of this information. ‘Contextual binding’ of multiple associated objects, thus, requires attentional resources. Our findings have important implications for the effects of attention on visual object recognition within relative ecological, real-world, environments.
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