New Finding: Attention modulates perception of visual space


We can easily appreciate that attention is required to perform daily activities, such as reading, learning, driving and playing sports.  Indeed, the topic of attention is one of the most studied across multiple scientific disciplines including the disciplines of cognitive science, neuroscience, perception, artificial intelligence, learning and development.  Despite this, it remains unknown whether attention plays a crucial role in constructing the vast visual perceptual space, which acts as an internal 3-D schema within which object localization, cognitive operations, space orientation, and motor planning occurs. We all know that our visual space is rich in appearance and reliably guides our interactions in the physical world.  At issue, is whether the appreciation of visual space requires attention control? The conventional wisdom is that attention plays little or no role at all.  This is because of our everyday experience of effortlessly perceiving a vivid volume of space in front of us immediately upon opening our eyes.  Such ease of perceiving visual space is in contrast to the effort required to scrutinize an object in the environment.  Indeed, current visual and cognitive neuroscience theories assume that the visual system automatically creates the vast visual space, and only then is attention used to bind simple features of objects and to orient to sensory events within the visual space.

It Is revealed that perceived target location is more accurate only when both the textured surface is on the ground and the observers direct attention to the lower visual field.  

Debunking conventional wisdom, a paper by Liu Zhou, Chenglong Deng, Teng Leng Ooi, and Zijiang J He entitled, “Attention modulates perception of visual space” by Nature Human Behaviour on December 19, 2016 showed that our visual system relies on attention control to obtain reliable visual space. Specifically, the authors found that an ambient attention mechanism in the environment selects the ground surface (our terrestrial niche) to use as bases and scaffolds to form the vast visual world.  In the study, observers stood in the dark while directing their attention to either the upper or lower visual field.  A textured surface, either delineating the ground or ceiling was then displayed, and followed by a briefly presented target.  It was revealed that perceived target location was more accurate only when both the textured surface was on the ground and the observers directed attention to the lower visual field.  Attending to the upper visual field with textured ceiling or ground surface, or in total darkness, led to less accurate location judgment.  This indicates that visual space is more accurately formed when the twin-factor of ambient attention to the lower field and having a visible ground surface are met.

Visual space is more accurately formed when the twin-factor of ambient attention to the lower field and having a visible ground surface are met.

Effectively, the finding reported in Nature Human Behaviour also provides an explanation for why we are efficient in perceiving visual space in our everyday-lighted environment.  This is because upon opening our eyes, our brain automatically directs attention to the ground surface so that the visual system can quickly construct an internal representation of the ground surface, from which visual space is established.  This means that our brain has an ambient attention mechanism that is well adapted to our particular ecological niche (ground surface).

For humans and other terrestrial creatures, the ambient attention mechanism has a bias for the terrain below our feet (ground).  This also makes sense because when we walk on the ground or drive on the road, we often use our ambient attention to cover a large area of the ground or a large stretch of the road.  By extension, non-terrestrial animals (e.g., aquatic or arboreal) would exhibit different biases.  If this prediction is confirmed, it will be fascinating to discover that amphibious animals such as penguins and seals have mechanisms with dual-biases to fit both niches (land and water).

Nature Human Behavior is a new journal from the Nature Publishing Group. 

The experiments described in the paper were conducted at ECNU.  The first author, Dr. Liu Zhou, is from the School of Psychology and Cognitive Science, ECNU. The empirical findings reported in this paper were part of her Ph.D. dissertation.  Prof. Zijiang He, visiting Changjiang Chair Professor, who is a co-corresponding author of the paper, supervised Dr. Liu Zhou in her dissertation study.  The other co-corresponding author is Prof. Teng Leng Ooi from The Ohio State University.  Mr. Deng Chenglong, a Ph.D candidate at ECNU, participated in the study.

Nature Human Behavior is a new journal from the Nature Publishing Group. The journal will launch its first issue on January 2017.  The paper, “Attention modulates perception of visual space”, was published last Tuesday as an advanced online publication.


East China Normal University