“Language can boost otherwise unseen objects into visual awareness”

[Language & Perception]

Giving objects a name, besides being an effective memory tool, serves to direct our attention towards familiar things in our visual environment. For example, while walking through a forest, knowing the linguistic label for an oak, maple, or birch tree can help us recognize and differentiate various trees that otherwise we may not have noticed. Along these lines, researchers Lupyan and Ward found that activating the linguistic label for an object is enough to propel an otherwise unseen object into visual awareness. In their experiment, participants indicated whether or not they saw familiar objects on a screen. The catch? These objects were suppressed from conscious visual awareness using a method called Continuous Flash Suppression; a method where one eye sees the object and the other eye sees a random scribble of lines, essentially making the original image incomprehensible. Lupyan and Ward found that participants responded faster to the suppressed image and noticed it more often when it was paired with an appropriate linguistic label (i.e. they heard the word right before the images appeared), compared to when participants heard an invalid label, or nothing at all. The authors conclude that simply hearing the appropriate label for an object can bring that object to attention, when it would have otherwise gone unseen.

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