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Joan Danielle K Ongchoco, Brian Scholl; How to create objects with your mind: From object-based attention to attention-based objects. Journal of Vision 2019;19(10):46c. doi: https://doi.org/10.1167/19.10.46c.
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A curious thing can happen when you stare at a regular gridlike pattern — e.g. a piece of graph paper, or the tiles on a bathroom floor. Although such patterns contain no structure, you may often begin to see structure anyway (e.g. a block ‘+’ shape). This phenomenon appears to be based on attention to relevant squares of the grid, and previous (older, underappreciated) research demonstrated that these squares do indeed accrue attentional benefits, such as faster probe detection. We will call this phenomenon scaffolded attention, because of how the grid provides a scaffold for selection.(Note that you cannot see these same shapes when staring at a blank page.) Here we asked whether this form of attention actually creates bona fide object representations that go on to enjoy object-specific effects. In essence, whereas previous work explored many cues to ‘object-based attention’ (e.g. involving continuity and closure), these current studies ask whether attention can be object-based even with no cues to objecthood at all. In several experiments (each with a direct replication), observers viewed 3×3 grids, and attended to particular squares until they could effectively see shapes such as two vertical (or horizontal) lines, or a block-letter H (or I). As they engaged in this form of scaffolded attention, two probes appeared, and observers simply reported whether they were the same or different. Remarkably, this produced a traditional ‘same-object advantage’: performance was enhanced for probes presented on the same (purely imagined) object, compared to equidistant probes presented on different objects — while equating for spatial factors. Thus, attention to the relevant squares effectively groups them, forming object representations out of thin (scaffolded) air. In other words, this demonstrates an unexpected inversion of the typical relationship between objects and attention: there is not only object-based attention, but also attention-based objects.
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