Active inhibition and memory promote exploration and search of natural scenes.
Bays PM., Husain M.
Active exploration of the visual world depends on sequential shifts of gaze that bring prioritized regions of a scene into central vision. The efficiency of this system is commonly attributed to a mechanism of "inhibition of return" (IOR) that discourages re-examination of previously-visited locations. Such a process is fundamental to computational models of attentional selection and paralleled by neurophysiological observations of inhibition of target-related activity in visuomotor areas. However, studies examining eye movements in naturalistic visual scenes appear to contradict the hypothesis that IOR promotes exploration. Instead, these reports reveal a surprisingly strong tendency to shift gaze back to the previously fixated location, suggesting that refixations might even be facilitated under natural conditions. Here we resolve this apparent contradiction, based on a probabilistic analysis of gaze patterns recorded during both free-viewing and search of naturalistic scenes. By simulating saccadic selection based on instantaneous influences alone, we show that the observed frequency of return saccades is in fact substantially less than predicted for a memoryless system, demonstrating that refixation is actively inhibited under natural viewing conditions. Furthermore, these observations reveal that gaze history significantly influences the way in which natural scenes are explored, contrary to accounts that suggest visual search has no memory.