Visual object representations can be formed outside the focus of voluntary attention: evidence from event-related brain potentials

Dagmar Müller, István Winkler, Urte Roeber, Susann Schaffer, István Czigler, Erich Schröger
Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 2010, 22 (6): 1179-88
There is an ongoing debate whether visual object representations can be formed outside the focus of voluntary attention. Recently, implicit behavioral measures suggested that grouping processes can occur for task-irrelevant visual stimuli, thus supporting theories of preattentive object formation (e.g., Lamy, D., Segal, H., & Ruderman, L. Grouping does not require attention. Perception and Psychophysics, 68, 17-31, 2006; Russell, C., & Driver, J. New indirect measures of "inattentive" visual grouping in a change-detection task. Perception and Psychophysics, 67, 606-623, 2005). We developed an ERP paradigm that allows testing for visual grouping when neither the objects nor its constituents are related to the participant's task. Our paradigm is based on the visual mismatch negativity ERP component, which is elicited by stimuli deviating from a regular stimulus sequence even when the stimuli are ignored. Our stimuli consisted of four pairs of colored discs that served as objects. These objects were presented isochronously while participants were engaged in a task related to the continuously presented fixation cross. Occasionally, two color deviances occurred simultaneously either within the same object or across two different objects. We found significant ERP differences for same- versus different-object deviances, supporting the notion that forming visual object representations by grouping can occur outside the focus of voluntary attention. Also our behavioral experiment, in which participants responded to color deviances--thus, this time the discs but, again, not the objects were task relevant--showed that the object status matters. Our results stress the importance of early grouping processes for structuring the perceptual world.

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