Figure-ground segmentation can occocur without attention: Research article

Ruth Kimchi, Mary A. Peterson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The question of whether or not figure-ground segmentation can occur without attention is unresolved. Early theorists assumed it can, but the evidence is scant and open to alternative interpretations. Recent research indicating that attention can influence figure-ground segmentation raises the question anew. We examined this issue by asking participants to perform a demanding change-detection task on a small matrix presented on a task-irrelevant scene of alternating regions organized into figures and grounds by convexity. Independently of any change in the matrix, the figure-ground organization of the scene changed or remained the same. Changes in scene organization produced congruency effects on target-change judgments, even though, when probed with surprise questions, participants could report neither the figure-ground status of the region on which the matrix appeared nor any change in that status. When attending to the scene, participants reported figure-ground status and changes to it highly accurately. These results clearly demonstrate that figure-ground segmentation can occur without focal attention.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)660-668
Number of pages9
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2008

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported partly by the Max Wertheimer Minerva Center for Cognitive Processes and Human Performance, University of Haifa (R.K.), and partly by National Science Foundation Grant BCS0425650 (M.A.P.). We thank Yafa Lev for programming assistance, and Dannah G. Raz and Allegra Dan for assistance in stimulus preparation and data collection. We are indebted to two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology (all)


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