What we see: inattention and the capture of attention by meaning

Conscious Cogn. 2002 Dec;11(4):488-506. doi: 10.1016/s1053-8100(02)00028-4.


Attention is necessary for the conscious perception of any object. Objects not attended to are not seen. What is it that captures attention when we are engaged in some attention-absorbing task? Earlier research has shown that there are only a very few stimuli which have this power and therefore are reliably detected under these conditions (for example, Mack & Rock, 1998; Moray, 1959). The two most reliable are the observer's own name and a happy face icon which seem to capture attention by virtue of their meaning. Three experiments are described which explore whether these stimuli are detected under conditions, heretofore unexamined, which either cause inattentional blindness or are associated with a perceptual failure associated with the limits of attention. The evidence obtained indicates that these stimuli have a unique capacity to capture and extend the limits of attention under conditions in which this has been deemed highly unlikely.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention*
  • Facial Expression*
  • Humans
  • Visual Perception*