Ambient and focal visual processing of naturalistic activity

Michelle L. Eisenberg, Jeffrey M. Zacks

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


When people inspect a picture, they progress through two distinct phases of visual processing: an ambient, or exploratory, phase that emphasizes input from peripheral vision and rapid acquisition of low-frequency information, followed by a focal phase that emphasizes central vision, salient objects, and high-frequency information. Does this qualitative shift occur during dynamic scene viewing? If so, when? One possibility is that shifts to exploratory processing are triggered at subjective event boundaries. This shift would be adaptive, because event boundaries typically occur when activity features change and when activity becomes unpredictable. Here, we used a perceptual event segmentation task, in which people identified boundaries between meaningful units of activity, to test this hypothesis. In two studies, an eye tracker recorded eye movements and pupil size while participants first watched movies of actors engaged in everyday activities and then segmented them into meaningful events. Saccade amplitudes and fixation durations during the initial viewings suggest that event boundaries function much like the onset of a new picture during static picture presentation: Viewers initiate an ambient processing phase and then progress to focal viewing as the event progresses. These studies suggest that this shift in processing mode could play a role in the formation of mental representations of the current environment.

Original languageEnglish
Article number5
JournalJournal of Vision
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2016


  • Ambient and focal processing
  • Event cognition
  • Eye tracking
  • Fixation duration
  • Pupil size
  • Saccade amplitude


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