Anne Treisman and feature integration theory

Perhaps the rumors of Anne Treisman’s passing are greatly exaggerated. I hope they are [UPDATE: I’ve gotten confirmation they sadly aren’t]. Regardless, in this era of lists of most-influential psychologists that do not include her, it is a good time to reflect on her influence.

Anne Treisman studied during what she described as “the cusp of the cognitive revolution”. Her tutor (instructor leading her very small classes at Cambridge) was Richard Gregory, who was probably one of the greatest educators of all time in the field of perception, as well as an excellent researcher. Gregory, I imagine, would have embraced the cognitive approach to understanding the mind as a refreshing alternative to behaviorism, that ran so contrary to the tradition of how visual perception was understood. During her PhD studies, Treisman was influenced by Donald Broadbent’s book that described a filter model of selective attention.

Two decades after completing her PhD, Anne Treisman proposed the theory that was and is, by a wide margin I believe, the most influential theory of attention. I still struggle with its implications today. Just yesterday I submitted a conference abstract (pasted below) whose first sentence quotes Treisman’s 1980 paper on this “feature integration theory of attention”.

It is just astounding that such a specific theory (as opposed to a general framework, e.g. Bayesian approaches) has sparked so much interesting research while still remaining a live question itself and seeming to resist simple confirmation or disconfirmation. It eventually brought what is now known as “the binding problem” to the forefront of neuroscience, after more than a decade of work in the psychology of visual perception and visual cognition.

To understand the issues surrounding Treisman’s specific claim that visual attention binds features requires, I think, a richer view of what vision does than any of us may yet possess. I have been struggling with it myself for over twenty years.

The remarkable independence of visual features… delimited

Alex Holcombe, Xiaoqi Xu, & Kim Ransley

Visual features could “float free” if no binding process intervened between sensation and conscious perception (Treisman, 1980). If instead a binding process precedes conscious perception, it should introduce dependencies among the featural errors that one makes. For example, when multiple objects are presented close in space or in time, an erroneous report of one feature from a neighboring object should more often than chance be associated with a report of the other feature from that neighboring object. Yet researchers have repeatedly found this not to be true, for features such as color, orientation, and letter identity (Bundesen et al., 2003;  Kyllingsbæk and Bundesen, 2007; Holcombe & Cavanagh, 2008; Vul & Rich, 2010). These remarkable findings of free-floating independence raise difficult questions about when and how feature binding occurs. They have inspired surprising conclusions, such as that features are not bound until they enter memory (Rangelov & Zeki, 2014). In two experiments, we find independence of temporal errors when reporting simultaneous letters from two streams that are far apart, much like the independence observed in the literature for other stimuli. But when the streams were presented very close to each other, a positive correlation was found. Experiment 1 found this for English letters and Experiment 2 for Chinese character radicals tested with readers of Chinese. These findings suggest that, in this case at least, a distance-dependent visual process mediates binding and thus that binding is not post-perceptual. In discussion, a broader view of visual feature binding will be offered.


One thought on “Anne Treisman and feature integration theory

  1. So how do b you reconcile the Independence results say of Vul and Rich?

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