The question of whether or not figure-ground segmentation can occur without attention is unresolved. Early theorists assumed it can, but the evidence is scant and open to alternative interpretations. Recent research indicating that attention can influence figure-ground segmentation raises the question anew. We examined this issue by asking participants to perform a demanding change-detection task on a small matrix presented on a task-irrelevant scene of alternating regions organized into figures and grounds by convexity. Independently of any change in the matrix, the figure-ground organization of the scene changed or remained the same. Changes in scene organization produced congruency effects on target-change judgments, even though, when probed with surprise questions, participants could report neither the figure-ground status of the region on which the matrix appeared nor any change in that status. When attending to the scene, participants reported figure-ground status and changes to it highly accurately. These results clearly demonstrate that figure-ground segmentation can occur without focal attention.
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