Memory and visual search in naturalistic 2D and 3D environments

Chia Ling Li, M. Pilar Aivar, Dmitry M. Kit, Matthew H. Tong, Mary M. Hayhoe

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54 Citations (SciVal)


The role of memory in guiding attention allocation in daily behaviors is not well understood. In experiments with two-dimensional (2D) images, there is mixed evidence about the importance of memory. Because the stimulus context in laboratory experiments and daily behaviors differs extensively, we investigated the role of memory in visual search, in both two-dimensional (2D) and three-dimensional (3D) environments. A 3D immersive virtual apartment composed of two rooms was created, and a parallel 2D visual search experiment composed of snapshots from the 3D environment was developed. Eye movements were tracked in both experiments. Repeated searches for geometric objects were performed to assess the role of spatial memory. Subsequently, subjects searched for realistic context objects to test for incidental learning. Our results show that subjects learned the room-target associations in 3D but less so in 2D. Gaze was increasingly restricted to relevant regions of the room with experience in both settings. Search for local contextual objects, however, was not facilitated by early experience. Incidental fixations to context objects do not necessarily benefit search performance. Together, these results demonstrate that memory for global aspects of the environment guides search by restricting allocation of attention to likely regions, whereas task relevance determines what is learned from the active search experience. Behaviors in 2D and 3D environments are comparable, although there is greater use of memory in 3D.

Original languageEnglish
Article number9
Pages (from-to)1-20
JournalJournal of Vision
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 14 Jun 2016


  • Attention
  • Eye movements
  • Memory representations
  • Visual search


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