Studies on change detection and change blindness have investigated the nature of visual representations by testing the conditions under which observers are able to detect when an object in a complex scene changes from one moment to the next. Several authors have proposed that change detection can occur without identification of the changing object, but the perceptual processes underlying this phenomenon are currently unknown. We hypothesized that change detection without localization or identification occurs when the change happens outside the focus of attention. Such changes would usually go entirely unnoticed, unless the change brings about a modification of one of the feature maps representing the scene. Thus, the appearance or disappearance of a unique feature might be registered even in the absence of focused attention and without feature binding, allowing for change detection, but not localization or identification. We tested this hypothesis in three experiments, in which changes either involved colors that were already present elsewhere in the display or entirely unique colors. Observers detected whether any change had occurred and then localized or identified the change. Change detection without localization occurred almost exclusively when changes involved a unique color. Moreover, change detection without localization for unique feature changes was independent of the number of objects in the display and independent of change identification. These findings suggest that pre-attentive registration of a change on a feature map can give rise to a conscious experience even when feature binding has failed: that something has changed without knowing what or where.
Keywords: Change blindness; Visual awareness; Visual working memory.