Curious objects: How visual complexity guides attention and engagement

Cognitive Science: A Multidisciplinary Journal 45 (4):e12933 (2021)
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Some things look more complex than others. For example, a crenulate and richly organized leaf may seem more complex than a plain stone. What is the nature of this experience—and why do we have it in the first place? Here, we explore how object complexity serves as an efficiently extracted visual signal that the object merits further exploration. We algorithmically generated a library of geometric shapes and determined their complexity by computing the cumulative surprisal of their internal skeletons—essentially quantifying the “amount of information” within each shape—and then used this approach to ask new questions about the perception of complexity. Experiments 1–3 asked what kind of mental process extracts visual complexity: a slow, deliberate, reflective process (as when we decide that an object is expensive or popular) or a fast, effortless, and automatic process (as when we see that an object is big or blue)? We placed simple and complex objects in visual search arrays and discovered that complex objects were easier to find among simple distractors than simple objects are among complex distractors—a classic search asymmetry indicating that complexity is prioritized in visual processing. Next, we explored the function of complexity: Why do we represent object complexity in the first place? Experiments 4–5 asked subjects to study serially presented objects in a self‐paced manner (for a later memory test); subjects dwelled longer on complex objects than simple objects—even when object shape was completely task‐irrelevant—suggesting a connection between visual complexity and exploratory engagement. Finally, Experiment 6 connected these implicit measures of complexity to explicit judgments. Collectively, these findings suggest that visual complexity is extracted efficiently and automatically, and even arouses a kind of “perceptual curiosity” about objects that encourages subsequent attentional engagement.

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Chaz Firestone
Johns Hopkins University


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