Seeing What's Not There: The Perception of Absences

Jorge Morales & Chaz Firestone


You return to your locked-up bicycle and immediately notice that the front wheel is missing. (Oh no! It must have been stolen.) As you stare at your incomplete frame, you have a visceral sense of the wheel's *absence*; there isn't just empty space where the wheel should be — there is a missing wheel. What is the nature of this experience? Whereas we typically think of perception and attention as being directed toward (present) objects, here we explore attention to missing or absent parts. Six experiments show that regions of space with missing parts ("absent space") are processed differently than more ordinary empty regions ("empty space"). Subjects saw line drawings of objects missing a part (e.g. a bicycle missing a wheel, a butterfly missing a wing, a jacket missing a sleeve, etc.), and then judged whether a probe appeared on the object or not. Intriguingly, when non-object probes appeared in absent space (e.g. where the front wheel should have been), subjects classified them faster than when probes appeared in empty space (e.g. next to the bicycle). We found this effect with spatially adjacent probes (E1), probes distributed around the stimulus (E2), and when subjects had to discriminate the probe’s color instead of its position (E3 & E4), suggesting that "absent" space attracts attention automatically and efficiently. In contrast, no reaction-time difference was found with scrambled images (destroying the appearance of absence), even though the images' low-level features and the probes' relative positions were preserved (E5). Finally, the absent-part attentional benefit was lost when stimuli were placed closer to the border of a bounding box to create the impression that the absent part couldn’t "fit" (E6). We conclude that, despite not being "objects" at all, absences are prioritized over otherwise identical empty spaces by mechanisms of perception and attention.

Talk at CUNY-Graduate Center CogSci Speaker Series November 2020