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Supplementary Information for "Change blindness as a result of mudsplashes"

J.K. O'Regan1,2, R..A. Rensink2 & J.J. Clark3
1Laboratoire de Psychologie Expérimentale, CNRS, Paris;
2Cambridge Basic Research, Nissan Research and Development, Inc.
 3Electrical Engineering Department, McGill University

view penultimate draft of article

See movies showing demonstrations of the effects

Stimuli used in the Experiments

Definition of Central and Marginal Interest locations



Some theoretical points

Literature related to change blindness

Stimuli used in the Experiments

The 48 pictures of natural scenes were taken from a commercial CDrom database of professional quality photographs (Corel). In the examples below, a Central Interest and a Marginal Interest change is shown for each of the mudsplash and masking rectangle experiments.

Examples for the mudsplash experiment


Examples for the masking rectangle experiment:


Definition of Central and Marginal Interest locations

A Central Interest element was a part of the picture that was referred to by 3 or more of 6 judges who had been asked to describe the pictures in an independent pilot experiment. The Central Interest elements were thus essentially 'what the picture was about'. The Marginal Interest elements, on the contrary, were parts of the picture that had been referred to by none of the 6 judges. They were generally parts that constituted the setting in which the main action of the scene took place. They could be foreground as well as background objects, so long as they were not part of the "action". The Marginal Interest changes were carefully chosen to be as visually conspicuous as the Central Interest changes, as measured by the number of pixels that were changed, and by the size and position within the picture of the change. The picture pairs used were the same as in the experiment using flicker (Rensink et al., 1997).  The mean centroid of the CI locations were at (x,y) pixel coordinates (-8 ±136, -5 ± 86) relative to the center of the 640 x 480 pixel screen, and at coordinates (92 ± 195, -11 ± 139) for the MI locations (the ±  values are standard deviations). The nature of the change between the original and modified pictures was very strictly controlled so as to ensure that there was no difference in the visual conspicuity of the change for the CI and MI changes. Thus the mean proportion of modified pixels in the picture was 4.2 ± 4 % and 5.1± 4 %, for CI and MI changes respectively. The mean euclidean distance in the RGB values across all the changed pixels was 104 ± 24 and 101 ± 51 respectively for CI and MI changes. Finally, the mean intensity change of the changed pixels was 127 ± 63 and 126 ± 110 for CI and MI changes. These values show that on purely visual measures, the CI and MI changes were equivalent. Any difference in the probability of noticing the changes was therefore attributable to differences in the semantic relevance of the changes.


The original (A) and modified (B) picture were each presented for 3 s in the order ABBAABB... At each picture change an 80 ms display of picture A+mudsplashes (or masking rectangle) or of B+mudsplashes (or masking rectangle) was displayed, as illustrated below. The observer's task was to press a button as soon as he or she saw a change. The experimenter then asked the observer to say what the change was. If the observer answered incorrectly, this was counted as an error.



Some theoretical points

The role of visual transients in determining blindness to scene changes: diversion rather than erasure or masking.

Visual transients are fast luminance transitions in the visual field that accompany any change that takes place and which exogenously attract attention (cf. eg. Klein, Kingstone & Pontefract, 1992). In the change blindness experiments, the mudsplashes, flicker, saccades, blinks or film cuts, generate large additional transients which may interfere with the normally occurring transients and thereby impair perception of the display change.

There are three reasonable hypotheses about how this interference may come about: erasure, masking, and diversion.

The erasure hypothesis is related to eye movements. Each time the eye moves, the retinal image shifts, and the retinal coordinates of objects in the scene are displaced. The large visual transient created on the retina by the smearing of contours during the saccade may be used by the visual system to signal that new information has become available for processing, and that a process of recombination must be triggered to relocate the old information and combine it with the new information being supplied. Depending on the compatibility of old and new information, some information  from the period preceding the transient may be lost.

It is possible that in addition to the usual transients created by eye saccades, other types of global transients, such as those provoked by the flicker, blink or film cut manipulations, could also trigger resetting of the internal buffers, and cause problems in detecting display changes. However, mudsplashes, since they are fairly small and few in number, can hardly be considered to be global transients. It seems unlikely that they should be able to trigger any recombination/erasure mechanism. Another argument also suggests that the erasure hypothesis is inappropriate: if the content of the internal representation of the world is erased at the moment of a transient, then everything should be erased to an equal extent. Yet it is found that Central Interest locations are less susceptible to change blindness than Marginal Interest locations .

A second possibility for the way transients might interfere with change detection is through masking: The transient provoked by the saccade, flicker, etc. is large in comparison to the transient due to the sought-for change. Interaction of the two transients may, through superposition or through metacontrast masking, erase or mask the information due to the true transient .

As before, this explanation of blindness to scene change may apply in the case of saccades and manipulations which create global transients, since these are guaranteed to cover or at least to be sufficiently near to the "true" transient for superposition or metacontrast masking to act . But in the case of the mudsplash experiment, the mudsplashes are far from the true change location, and it does not seem reasonable to suppose that the excercise a masking effect.

A final possibility to explain the effect of the additional transients created by the mudsplash, flicker, etc., manipulations is to suppose that their effect is to act as a "diversion" : Instead of there being just one transient in the visual field corresponding to the true change, attentional ressources must now be distributed over many transients. The probability that attention will be directed to the true location is diminished. This explanation will work not only in the flicker, saccade, blink and film-cut experiments which generated transients all over the visual field,  but also in the mudsplash experiment, where there were six mudsplashes, and so six diverting transients.

Overview of the hypothesized mechanism of change blindness

The following seems to be the explanation of the mudsplash and related effects.  The explanation is in four stages.

1. Encoding: As an observer contemplates a picture, attention processes the different aspects of the picture and encodes them into memory . It seems that only a small number of aspects (the "Central Interest" aspects) of the scene will be encoded.

2.Diversion by transients: The disturbance caused by the mudsplash, flicker, blinks, saccades or film cuts, arranged to occur simultaneously with the true change in these experiments, generates many transients located all over the picture in addition to the particular local transient caused by the "true" change. Instead of going to the true change location, attention is sollicited by a multitude of transients among which it must choose. The probability that attention will go to the location corresponding to the true change is small.

3. Comparison at the transient locations: After attention has moved to one of the transient locations, comparison is attempted between what is currently at that location, and what was previously encoded in memory about that location. It is likely that the location will not be a Central Interest location: the observer will not have encoded its contents, and will not be able to tell whether a  change has occurred. In experiments where the change is made repetitively, the observer can adopt the strategy of waiting to see whether at the next repetition a change occurs.

4. The observer can then go on to check the next location where a transient occurs. Unless the change occurs at a Central Interest location which has been encoded into memory, a true change will only be detected after it has been attained via this serial checking process. (Such serial checking of each mudsplash location predicts that in the case of marginal interest changes the change should on average be found after checking half of the transient locations. Since there were six mudsplashes and one true change location, we expect time to detection to be 3.5 cycles. This is close to the value that was found)

Literature related to Change Blindness

The state of the literature on change blindness has been reviewed by Simons & Levin (1997) and Intraub (1997). As of July 1998, a special issue of the Journal Visual Cognition is in preparation on the topic of change blindness and visual memory (guest editor: D.J. Simons, Harvard University).

Saccade-contingent experiments

The first studies of change blindness in natural scenes were those conducted in G. McConkie's laboratory (Grimes, 1996; Currie, McConkie, Carlson-Radvansky & Irwin, 1995; McConkie & Currie, 1996). In these studies, observers looked at pictures of natural scenes while their eye movements were being recorded. The authors observed that large changes in the pictures could be made without the observers noticing them, provided the changes were synchronised with the occurrence of an eye saccade. The changes that were missed could be surprisingly large, involving a significant area of the pictures (sometimes 25%, cf. Grimes, 1996). A study by Blackmore, Brelstaff, Nelson, & Troscianko (1995) showed similar results in conditions where a picture shifted (and presumably a saccade occurred) at the same time as it changed. In simpler displays, Ballard, Hayhoe & Whitehead (1992) found that a display of blocks could be changed during eye saccades without observers noticing it, and Zelinsky (1997, 1998) has studied perception of eye-contingent changes in scenes of objects on a table.

A number of earlier studies performed with saccade-contingent display changes had prefigured the McConkie laboratory results using simpler stimuli: Bridgeman, Hendry & Stark (1975) had shown that a large visual pattern could be shifted during saccades; McConkie & Zola (1979) had cHaNgEd tHe AlTeRnAtInG CaSe of sentences being read and O'Regan (1981) had shown that text could be shifted: in all cases the change would not be noticed (cf review by Irwin, 1992). A large literature exists concerning changes made in text during reading in order to understand the mechanisms of eye movement control during reading (cf. e.g. review by O'Regan, 1990; Rayner & Pollatsek, 1987).

Up until recently all this work had been situated in the framework of theories of visual stability: researchers were trying to answer the question of why the world does not appear to move when we move our eyes. A whole literature existed which showed that simple stimuli like dots appeared mislocalized if they were flashed up during saccades. The results were  interpreted as demonstrating inaccuracies of the saccade-specific mechanisms in the visual system that patch together the series of "snapshots" provided by the successive eye fixations that occur during visual exploration (cf reviews by Matin, 1972; 1986).

Experiments with visual transients

Recent results (prefigured by earlier studies of Phillips, 1974, and Pashler, 1988) performed without  synchronizing scene changes with eye movements, suggest that the previously observed effects might have little to do with saccades themselves, but might instead simply be related to the large visual transients that the saccades induce. One suggestion of this was the experiment of Rensink, O'Regan & Clark (1997), in which the display change was preceded by a brief (80 ms) gray flash that covered the whole picture. Like Grimes et al. (1996) and McConkie & Currie (1996), Rensink et al. observed that very large display changes often went unnoticed. Further experiments using different display durations and flash durations, as well as different colors for the flash, confirmed and extended the results (Rensink, O'Regan & Clark, in press).

Since the Rensink, O'Regan & Clark (1997) experiment, several experiments have been performed using other techniques in which the picture change coincides with a visual transient. The experiment with mudsplashes reported in the present issue of Nature (see also O'Regan, Rensink & Clark; 1996) is a first example. Experiments have also been performed with groups of isolated objects rather than whole scenes (Zelinsky, 1997). O'Regan, Deubel, Clark & Rensink (1997; in press) synchronised display changes with eye blinks. Similar results have been obtained with motion picture sequences (Levin & Simons, in press): at the moment of a camera cut (which produces a visual transient), a salient object in the scene is changed.   In all these experiments, large display changes are often not seen.

Work suggesting that the internal representation is sparse

A large literature on short-term visual sensory memory ("iconic" memory) has been reviewed by Coltheart (1983), Long (1980), Hochberg (1984) and Haber (1983).

Pashler (1974; 1995) showed that the time it takes to report a probed character in an array of characters does not depend on the amount of time the characters were visible before the probe appeared. This suggests that even though they are visible, there is no processing of the characters before the probe appears.

Wolfe (1997a,b) and Wolfe, Klempen & Dahlen (submitted) show that the time it takes to find a target character in a display does not diminish when the display has already been seen many times before, nor does it increase if the non-target letters change from trial to trial. Wolfe interprets the results in terms of a theory in which he supposes that in order for an item in the visual field to be classified or recognized, attention must be deployed onto the item. Before attention is deployed ("pre-attentive vision"), and after attention has left an item ("post-attentive" vision), its characteristics are not combined together to form an object, but remain part of a kind of "primeval soup" of undifferentiated visual "stuff". Wolfe calls his theory   "inattentional amnesia", and says it can explain what
Rock, Linnett, Grant & Mack (1992), Mack & Rock (1996) and Mack, Tang, Tuma & Kahn (1992) call "inattentional blindness" (see also Joseph, Chun & Nakayama, 1997). In this, observers are unable to see a stimulus which is perfectly visible but to which they are not attending.

The world as an outside memory, or as its own representation.

The idea that there is no need to re-present the visual field inside the brain was coherently argued by MacKay (e.g. 1973) and taken up again by O'Regan (1992). Similar or related ideas are expressed by Ballard, Hayhoe & Pook (1995), Wolfe (1997a,b), Edelman (in press), and from a philosophical point of view by Dennett (1991), Varela, Thompson & Rosch (1991) and Noë, Pessoa & Thompson (submitted).

The question is relevant to the debate (reviewed by Pessoa, L., Thompson, E., & Noë, A., in press) on how the brain fills in visual scotomas or the blindspot, and the mechanisms underlying the perception of illusory contours.


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