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The feature integration theory, developed by Anne Treisman, a professor at Princeton Universitymarker's Department of Psychology, and Gelade since the early 1980s, posits that different kinds of attention are responsible for binding different features into consciously experienced wholes. The theory has been one of the most influential psychological model of human visual attention. According to Treisman, in a first step to visual processing, several primary visual features are processed and represented with separate feature maps that are later integrated in a saliency map that can be accessed in order to direct attention to the most conspicuous areas.

Treisman distinguishes two kinds of visual search tasks, feature search and conjunction search. Feature search can be performed fast and pre-attentively for targets defined by primitive features. Conjunction search is the serial search for targets defined by a conjunction of primitive features. It is much slower and requires conscious attention. She concluded from many experiments that color, orientation, and intensity are primitive features, for which feature search can be performed.

It was widely speculated that the saliency map could be located in early visual cortical areas, e.g. the Primary Visual Cortex (V1), though this is controversial. Wolfe's popular Guided Search Model offers a more up to date theory of visual search but is also problematic.

Evidence for this theory comes from the phenomenon of illusory conjunctions, popout of primitives in visual search (making them easily identifiable regardless of number of distracters) and the fact that participants can often remember the presence of an object, but not its location, during a fast visual search.


Research literature

  • Treisman, A., “Features and objects: the fourteenth Bartlett Memorial Lecture”. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 40A, 201-236, 1988
  • Treisman, A. M. and Gelade, G., “A feature-integration theory of attention”, Cognitive Psychology, Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 97-136, 1980
  • Treisman, Anne M., and Nancy G.Kanwisher, "Perceiving visually presented objects: recognition, awareness, and modularity," Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 8 (1998), pp 218-226

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