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Hart, Bernard M. 't; Schmidt, Hannah C. E. F.; Roth, Christine and Einhäuser, Wolfgang (July 2013): Fixations on objects in natural scenes: dissociating importance from salience. In: Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 4, 455 [PDF, 1MB]

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The relation of selective attention to understanding of natural scenes has been subject to intense behavioral research and computational modeling, and gaze is often used as a proxy for such attention. The probability of an image region to be fixated typically correlates with its contrast. However, this relation does not imply a causal role of contrast. Rather, contrast may relate to an object's ``importance'' for a scene, which in turn drives attention. Here we operationalize importance by the probability that an observer names the object as characteristic for a scene. We modify luminance contrast of either a frequently named (''common''/'' important'') or a rarely named (''rare''/''unimportant'') object, track the observers' eye movements during scene viewing and ask them to provide keywords describing the scene immediately after. When no object is modified relative to the background, important objects draw more fixations than unimportant ones. Increases of contrast make an object more likely to be fixated, irrespective of whether it was important for the original scene, while decreases in contrast have little effect on fixations. Any contrast modification makes originally unimportant objects more important for the scene. Finally, important objects are fixated more centrally than unimportant objects, irrespective of contrast. Our data suggest a dissociation between object importance (relevance for the scene) and salience (relevance for attention). If an object obeys natural scene statistics, important objects are also salient. However, when natural scene statistics are violated, importance and salience are differentially affected. Object salience is modulated by the expectation about object properties (e.g., formed by context or gist), and importance by the violation of such expectations. In addition, the dependence of fixated locations within an object on the object's importance suggests an analogy to the effects of word frequency on landing positions in reading.

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