Does luminance-contrast contribute to a saliency map for overt visual attention?

Eur J Neurosci. 2003 Mar;17(5):1089-97. doi: 10.1046/j.1460-9568.2003.02508.x.


In natural environments, humans select a subset of visual stimuli by directing their gaze to locations attended. In previous studies it has been found that at fixation points luminance-contrast is higher than average. This led to the hypothesis that luminance-contrast makes a major contribution to a saliency map of visual overt attention, consistent with a computation of stimulus saliency in early visual cortical areas. We re-evaluate this hypothesis by using natural and modified natural images to uncover the causal effects of luminance-contrast to human overt visual attention and: (i) we confirm that when viewing natural images, contrasts are elevated at fixation points. This, however, only holds for low spatial frequencies and in a limited temporal window after stimulus onset; (ii) however, despite this correlation between overt attention and luminance-contrast, moderate modifications of contrast in natural images do not measurably affect the selection of fixation points. Furthermore, strong local reductions of luminance-contrast do not repel but attract fixation; (iii) neither contrast nor contrast modification is correlated to fixation duration; and (iv), even the moderate contrast modifications used fall into the physiologically relevant range, and subjects are well able to detect them in a forced choice paradigm. In summary, no causal contribution of luminance-contrast to a saliency map of human overt attention is detectable. In conjunction with recent results on the relation of contrast sensitivity of neuronal activity to the level in the visual cortical hierarchy, the present study provides evidence that, for natural scenes, saliency is computed not early but late during processing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Contrast Sensitivity / physiology*
  • Eye Movements / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Light
  • Male
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Vision, Ocular
  • Visual Perception / physiology*