Anne Treisman

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Anne M. Treisman
Honorary degree recipient Anne Treisman speaking at Congregation ceremony 2004.jpg
in 2004
Born (1935-02-27) 27 February 1935 (age 89)
Wakefield, Yorkshire, England
Residence New York City, United States
Fields Psychology
Institutions Princeton University
Alma mater Oxford University
Known for Feature integration theory, Attenuation theory
Notable awards Golden Brain Award (1996)
Grawemeyer Award in Psychology (2009)
National Medal of Science (2011)

Anne Marie Treisman (born 27 February 1935 in Wakefield, Yorkshire) is a psychologist at Princeton University's Department of Psychology. She researches visual attention, object perception, and memory. One of her most influential ideas is the feature integration theory of attention, first published with G. Gelade in 1980. Treisman has taught at Oxford University, University of British Columbia, University of California, Berkeley and Princeton. In 2013, Treisman received the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama for her pioneering work in the study of attention.[1] During her long career, Treisman has experimentally and theoretically defined the issue of how information is selected and integrated to form meaningful objects that guide human thought and action.

Early life and education

Anne Treisman was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, England. Two years later, her family moved to Rochester, Kent where her father, Percy Taylor, worked as chief education officer during World War II.[2] The English educational system at the time forced Treisman to choose only three subjects to study throughout secondary school, and Treisman focused on the language arts (French, Latin and History). Treisman received her B.A. in French Literature at Cambridge in 1954. She earned a first class BA with distinction, which earned her a scholarship that she used to obtain a second BA in psychology. During this extra year, Treisman studied under the supervision of Richard Gregory, who introduced her to various methods of exploring the mind through experiments in perception.[3]

In 1957, Treisman attended Oxford University to work toward her DPhil under her advisor, Carolus Oldfield.[3] Treisman conducted research on aphasia, but soon pursued interest in non-clinical populations. Treisman's research was guided by Donald Broadbent's book, Perception and Communication.[4] After three years of research, she married Michel Treisman, another Oxford graduate student. Two years later, Treisman completed her thesis, "Selective Attention and Speech Perception" in 1962.[3]

In 1976, Treisman's marriage to Michel ended. She remarried in 1978 to Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics in 2002.[5]


Around the time Treisman was working toward her DPhil, psychology was shifting from the traditional behaviorist view to that of an active processor of information.[6] Donald Broadbent and Colin Cherry had recently introduced selective listening (also known as the "cocktail party effect")[7] Broadbent later proposed a Filter Model of selective attention which proposed that unattended auditory information is filtered out early in the process of perception and is not analysed.[4] This theory was criticised because it could not explain why unattended information sometimes gets through the "filter".

After receiving her DPhil, Treisman worked in the Medical Research Council Psycholinguistics Research Unit conducting research in selective listening.[3] In 1964, Treisman proposed her Attenuation Theory, which countered Broadbent's Filter model and proposed that unattended information is attenuated rather than completely filtered out of consciousness. Treisman used a dichotic listening task during which participants heard multiple languages and different voices (male vs. female). She showed that a difference between two equally known languages allowed no more efficient selection than a difference in subject matter between two messages in the same language. Unknown foreign languages, however, produced less interference.[8] It appeared that complete rejection or filtering of one language was almost impossible; with some degree of variability depending on physical characteristics and language of the message received. Treisman concluded that features of incoming messages are analysed successfully from the nervous system and that selection between messages in the same voice, intensity, and localisation takes place during, rather than before or after, the analysis, which results in the identification of their verbal content.[8] At this stage, the information-handling capacity becomes limited and can only handle one input at a time, either keeping to one message where possible, or switching between the two. Thus, Broadbent's suggestion that classes of words constitute separate "input channels" could be rejected. Her theory went on to suggest that physical characteristics are processed early, while semantic processing occurs at a later point[8]

In 1967, while working as a visiting scientist at Bell Telephone Laboratories' psychology department, she published a paper in Psychological Review that was "central to the development of selective attention as a scientific field of study".[9]

Treisman later returned to Oxford, where she accepted a position in the Psychology Department as a University lecturer and was appointed a Fellow of St. Anne's College (Treisman, 2006). Here, she began exploring the idea that attention is involved in integrating distinct features to form a whole representation of an object.

Treisman and Kahneman accepted positions at the University of British Columbia shortly after their marriage. In 1980, Treisman and Gelade published their seminal classic proposing Feature Integration Theory (FIT).[10] FIT demonstrates that early stages of object perception encode features such as color, form, and orientation as separate entities; focused attention combines the distinct features into object perception.

Feature Integration Theory

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Treisman's Feature Integration Theory proposes a two-stage model of visual object perception:

Pre-Attentive Stage

The first stage is called “pre-attentive” because it happens automatically, or without effort or attention by the perceiver. In this stage, an object is broken down into its elementary features for processing (i.e., color, texture, shape, etc.). Treisman posits we are unaware of this stage of attention because it occurs quickly and early in perceptual processes (before conscious awareness).[10] Evidence for the pre-attentive state comes from Treisman's own studies. Treisman created a display of four objects flanked by two black numbers. The display flashed on a computer screen for 1/5 of a second and followed by a random-dot masking field to eliminate residual perception of the stimuli after the stimuli were turned off. Participants were asked to first report on the black numbers, followed by what they saw at each of the four locations where the shapes had been.[11] Under these conditions, participants reported seeing illusory conjunctions in 18% of trials. That is, participants reported seeing objects that consisted of a combination of features from two different stimuli.[12] For example, after seeing a big yellow circle, a big blue triangle, a small red triangle, and a small green circle, a person might report seeing a small red circle and a small green triangle. The reason illusory conjunctions occurred is that stimuli were presented rapidly and the observers' attention was distracted from the target object by having them focus on the black numbers; thus, elementary features had not yet been grouped or bound to an object. Having participants attend to the target objects eliminated the illusory conjunction[13]

Focused Attention Stage

The second stage of processing depends on attention. In this stage, the features are recombined, so we perceive the whole object rather than individual features.[10]

Treisman links the process of binding that occurs in the focused attention stage to physiology by noting that an object causes activity in both the '’what'’ and '’where'’ streams of the cortex (see Two-streams hypothesis). Activity in the '’what'’ stream would include information about color and form, while activity in the '’where'’ stream would include information about location and motion. According to Treisman, attention is the "glue" that combines the information from both streams and causes us to perceive all the features of an object as combined at one specific location.[11] It is easy to consider perceiving one object in isolation, but when we consider multiple objects, numerous features exist at many locations. The perceptual system's task is to associate each of these features with the object to which it belongs. Feature integration theory proposes that in order for this to occur, we need to focus our attention on each object in turn. Once we attend to a particular location, the features at that location are bound together and are associated with the object at that location.[10]

Treisman repeated the illusory conjunction experiment, but now instructed participants to ignore the flanking numbers and focus their attention on the four target objects. Focused attention eliminated illusory conjunctions.[13]

Treisman's FIT model now uses three different spatially selective mechanisms to solve the binding problem: selection by a spatial attention window, inhibition of locations from feature maps containing unwanted features, and top-down activation of the location containing the currently attended object. .[14]


William James discussed the connection between attention and mental processes, "Millions of items…are present to my senses which never properly enter my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to…Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought…. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others."[11]

In the early 1980s, neuroscientists such as Torston Wiesel and David H. Hubel were discovering that different areas of the primate visual cortex were finely tuned to selective features, such as line orientation, luminance, color, movement, etc. These findings prompted the question of how these distinct features are connected into a unified whole, e.g., the binding problem. For example, when you see a red ball roll by, cells sensitive to movement fire in the medial temporal cortex, while cells sensitive to color, shape and location fire in other areas. Despite all this distinct neuronal firing, you don't perceive the ball as separated by shape, movement and color perceptions; you experience an integrated experience with all these components occurring together.[11] The question of how these elements are combined is the essence of the binding problem and continued into the late 1990s. A number of possible mechanisms were envisaged, including grandmother cells responding to specific conjunctions of features that uniquely identify a particular object;[15] local cell assemblies onto which the pathways from different feature maps converge, perhaps with adjustable connections allowing flexible routing of signals;[16] a serial scan of different spatial areas selected by an adjustable attention window, conjoining the features that each contains and excluding features from adjacent areas;[10] detection of temporal contiguity – parts and properties whose onset, offset or motion coincide probably belong to the same object synchronised firing of cells responding to features of the same object, perhaps assisted by oscillatory neural activity.[17] Treisman used failures of binding to shed light on its underlying mechanisms. Specifically, she found that left-brain-damaged patients have increasing illusory conjunctions and decreased performance in a spatially cued attention task, which suggests a link between attentional binding and the parietal lobes.[14] Treisman also cited corroborating evidence from positron emission tomography and event-related potential studies which were consistent with the spatial attention account of feature integration.

Treisman's work has formed the basis for thousands of experiments in cognitive psychology, vision sciences, cognitive science, neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience.


Treisman was elected to the Royal Society of London in 1989, the US National Academy of Sciences in 1994, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1995, as well as a William James Fellow of the American Psychological Society in 2002. Treisman was the recipient of the 2009 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Psychology for her explanation of how our brains build meaningful images from what we see.[18]

Selected publications

Key works include:

  • Treisman, A., & Gelade, G., 1980. A feature integration theory of attention. Cognitive Psychology, 12, 97–136.
  • Treisman, A., 1991. Search, similarity and the integration of features between and within dimensions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 17, 652–676.
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See also


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  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Wikibooks:Applied History of Psychology/History of Research on Attention
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External links