A sensorimotor account of visual attention in natural behaviour

Frank Schumann

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


The real-world sensorimotor paradigm is based on the premise that sufficient ecological complexity is a prerequisite for inducing naturally relevant sensorimotor relations in the experimental context. The aim of this thesis is to embed visual attention research within the real-world sensorimotor paradigm using an innovative mobile gaze-tracking system (EyeSeeCam, Schneider et al., 2009). Common laboratory set-ups in the field of attention research fail to create natural two-way interaction between observer and situation because they deliver pre-selected stimuli and human observer is essentially neutral or passive. EyeSeeCam, by contrast, permits an experimental design whereby the observer freely and spontaneously engages in real-world situations. By aligning a video camera in real time to the movements of the eyes, the system directly measures the observer’s perspective in a video recording and thus allows us to study vision in the context of authentic human behaviour, namely as resulting from past actions and as originating future actions. The results of this thesis demonstrate that (1) humans, when freely exploring natural environments, prefer directing their attention to local structural features of the world, (2) eyes, head and body perform distinct functions throughout this process, and (3) coordinated eye and head movements do not fully stabilize but rather continuously adjust the retinal image also during periods of quasi-stable “fixation”. These findings validate and extend the common laboratory concept of feature salience within whole-body sensorimotor actions outside the laboratory. Head and body movements roughly orient gaze, potentially driven by early stages of processing. The eyes then fine-tune the direction of gaze, potentially during higher-level stages of visual-spatial behaviour (Studies 1 and 2). Additional head-centred recordings reveal distinctive spatial biases both in the visual stimulation and the spatial allocation of gaze generated in a particular real-world situation. These spatial structures may result both from the environment and form the idiosyncrasies of the natural behaviour afforded by the situation. By contrast, when the head-centred videos are re-played as stimuli in the laboratory, gaze directions reveal a bias towards the centre of the screen. This “central bias” is likely a consequence of the laboratory set-up with its limitation to eye-in-head movements and its restricted screen (Study 3). Temporal analysis of natural visual behaviour reveals frequent synergistic interactions of eye and head that direct rather than stabilize gaze in the quasi-stable eye movement periods following saccades, leading to rich temporal dynamics of real-world retinal input (Study 4) typically not addressed in laboratory studies. Direct comparison to earlier data with respect to the visual system of cats (CatCam), frequently taken as proxy for human vision, shows that stabilizing eye movements play an even less dominant role in the natural behaviour of cats. This highlights the importance of realistic temporal dynamics of vision for models and experiments (Study 5). The approach and findings presented in this thesis demonstrate the need for and feasibility of real- world research on visual attention. Real-world paradigms permit the identification of relevant features triggered in the natural interplay between internal-physiological and external-situational sensorimotor factors. Realistic spatial and temporal characteristics of eye, head and body interactions are essential qualitative properties of reliable sensorimotor models of attention but difficult to obtain under laboratory conditions. Taken together, the data and theory presented in this thesis suggest that visual attention does not represent a pre-processing stage of object recognition but rather is an integral component of embodied action in the real world.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Osnabrück
  • König, Peter, Supervisor, External person
Award date1 Dec 2012
Publication statusPublished - 2012


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