Searching for meaning: Local scene semantics guide attention during natural visual search in scenes


Models of visual search in scenes include image salience as a source of attentional guidance. However, because scene meaning is correlated with image salience, it could be that the salience predictor in these models is driven by meaning. To test this proposal, we generated meaning maps that represented the spatial distribution of semantic informativeness in scenes, and salience maps which represented the spatial distribution of conspicuous image features and tested their influence on fixation densities from two object search tasks in real-world scenes. The results showed that meaning accounted for significantly greater variance in fixation densities than image salience, both overall and in early attention across both studies. Here, meaning explained 58% and 63% of the theoretical ceiling of variance in attention across both studies, respectively. Furthermore, both studies demonstrated that fast initial saccades were not more likely to be directed to higher salience regions than slower initial saccades, and initial saccades of all latencies were directed to regions containing higher meaning than salience. Together, these results demonstrated that even though meaning was task-neutral, the visual system still selected meaningful over salient scene regions for attention during search.

Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology