Study: Your Eyes Are Drawn to What’s Meaningful, Not to What “Sticks Out”

A new study overturns the conventional thinking about how we focus our visual attention.

Study: Your Eyes Are Drawn to What’s Meaningful, Not to What “Sticks Out”
Images from a UC Davis eye-tracking study.


Imagine that moment right as you’re viewing a photo you’ve never seen before: How do your eyes go about choosing which parts of the image to look at first?

The leading theory in attention studies says that our eyes are drawn to things that are visually salient — or, those that “stick out” to us. However, a new study from UC Davis overturns that model by showing that “meaning” seems to be the primary guider of visual attention, while salience plays a secondary role.

“A lot of people will have to rethink things,” said John Henderson, professor at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain, who led the research. “The saliency hypothesis really is the dominant view.”

The findings, published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, come from a study that tracked the eye movements of people viewing images of real-world scenes — a kitchen, a boat dock, a messy room — for the first time.

To define which parts of the images were “meaningful,” researchers divided the images into circular overlapping tiles and submitted them individually to the online crowd-sourcing service Mechanical Turk, where users rated the tiles for meaning. For example, a tile showing only part of a window curtain would be rated low in meaning by users, while one showing a painting of purple grapes would be rated higher.

Rating the meaning of the tiles effectively turned the images into “meaning maps,” as researchers dubbed them. Salience was also mapped out, though by a much easier process — a computer program measured each part of the images for relative contrast and brightness.

The question now was: which of these maps would best predict the eye movements of the participants? To find out, researchers showed participants each image for 12 seconds and recorded the points at which they fixated their vision.

Real-world images alongside data representations of eye tracking (center left), meaning (center right) and salience (far right). 

Results showed that “meaning was better able than visual salience to account for the guidance of attention through real-world scenes,” even though salience often overlapped with meaning.

So, why are our eyes drawn to meaning over what's bright and shiny? The researchers suggest the reason might be that, when viewing real-world scenes, we use knowledge representations to help us prioritize where to look. For example, when we see a photo of a kitchen, we have a cognitive model that tells us what a kitchen is and where we might find meaning in that photo — among the objects by the sink, for instance, and not necessarily in the brightly colored curtains. 

Henderson and postdoctoral researcher Taylor Hayes said they don't yet have solid data on what exactly constitutes meaning in visual information. But they suggest their findings could have important implications for computer vision, such as training algorithms to scan security footage or identify and caption photos online.

On a broader level, the findings seem to echo a claim made by the phenomenological psychologist Ludwig Binswanger in his book “Being in the World”

What we perceive are “first and foremost” not impressions of taste, tone, smell or touch, not even things or objects, but rather, meanings.

Binswanger essentially argues that we perceive the world with meaning detection before object recognition. This order of perception could be advantageous from an evolutionary perspective because determining the meaning of something is often more relevant than recognizing its exact nature. In other words, if you're in the jungle and you spot a tiger rushing toward you, the first thought you want to have is danger, not necessarily that's a female Bengal tiger.

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Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

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  • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
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CRISPR therapy cures first genetic disorder inside the body

It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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