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Chenxiao Guan, Chaz Firestone; Seeing what’s possible: Disconnected visual ‘parts’ are confused for their potential ‘wholes’. Journal of Vision 2019;19(10):220a. doi: https://doi.org/10.1167/19.10.220a.
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Perception research traditionally investigates how actual states of the world are seen — how we perceive the shapes, colors, and locations that objects actually have. By contrast, everyday life provokes us to consider possible states of the world that have not yet (and may not ever) actually obtain. For example, when assembling furniture or completing a jigsaw puzzle, we may appreciate not only the particular shapes of individual objects, but also their potential to combine into new objects with distinct shapes of their own. What is the nature of this experience? Here, we explore how visual processing extracts not only what objects are, but also what they could become. Our previous work showed that, for extremely simple displays, pairs of geometrically compatible objects prime their potential completions, such that (e.g.) two puzzle pieces activate representations of a completed puzzle. Here, we explore how the mind literally confuses potential objects for real ones. In 5 experiments inspired by the puzzle game Tetris, subjects had to respond to a particular target within a stream of distracting “tetrominoes”; surprisingly, subjects false-alarmed more often to pairs of tetrominoes that could create their target than to pairs of tetrominoes that couldn’t — essentially representing possible objects as if they were physically present on the display. This pattern held for several types of objects and transformations, and could not be explained by previously known factors, such as spatial alignment, representational momentum due to imputed gravity, or various forms of response bias. We suggest that possible states of the world can not only be contemplated in moments of deliberate reflection, but also automatically represented by more basic mechanisms of perception and attention.
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