Can you perceive ensembles without perceiving individuals?: The role of statistical perception in determining whether awareness overflows access


Do we see more than we can report? Psychologists and philosophers have been hotly debating this ques- tion, in part because both possibilities are supported by suggestive evidence. On one hand, phenomena such as inattentional blindness and change blindness suggest that visual awareness is especially sparse. On the other hand, experiments relating to iconic memory suggest that our in-the-moment awareness of the world is much richer than can be reported. Recent research has attempted to resolve this debate by showing that observers can accurately report the color diversity of a quickly flashed group of letters, even for letters that are unattended. If this ability requires awareness of the individual letters’ colors, then this may count as a clear case of conscious awareness overflowing cognitive access. Here we explored this requirement directly: can we perceive ensemble properties of scenes even without being aware of the relevant individual features? Across several experiments that combined aspects of iconic memory with measures of change blindness, we show that observers can accurately report the color diversity of unattended stimuli, even while their self-reported awareness of the individual elements is coarse or nonexistent—and even while they are completely blind to situations in which each individual element changes color mid-trial throughout the entire experiment. We conclude that awareness of statistical properties may occur in the absence of awareness of individual features, and that such results are fully consistent with sparse visual awareness.

Cognition, 152, 78–86