Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics

, Volume 76, Issue 2, pp 270–279 | Cite as

Detecting meaning in RSVP at 13 ms per picture

  • Mary C. PotterEmail author
  • Brad Wyble
  • Carl Erick Hagmann
  • Emily S. McCourt


The visual system is exquisitely adapted to the task of extracting conceptual information from visual input with every new eye fixation, three or four times a second. Here we assess the minimum viewing time needed for visual comprehension, using rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) of a series of six or 12 pictures presented at between 13 and 80 ms per picture, with no interstimulus interval. Participants were to detect a picture specified by a name (e.g., smiling couple) that was given just before or immediately after the sequence. Detection improved with increasing duration and was better when the name was presented before the sequence, but performance was significantly above chance at all durations, whether the target was named before or only after the sequence. The results are consistent with feedforward models, in which an initial wave of neural activity through the ventral stream is sufficient to allow identification of a complex visual stimulus in a single forward pass. Although we discuss other explanations, the results suggest that neither reentrant processing from higher to lower levels nor advance information about the stimulus is necessary for the conscious detection of rapidly presented, complex visual information.


Picture perception Feedforward processing Attentional set Conscious perception Conceptual processing 


Author note

This research was supported by National Institutes of Health Grant No. MH47432. M.C.P. developed the study concept. All of the authors contributed to the study design. The testing, data collection, and data analysis were performed by E.S.M. and C.E.H. under the supervision of M.C.P. and B.W. M.C.P. drafted the article, and B.W. and C.E.H. provided critical revisions. All of the authors approved the final version of the article for submission. We thank Chidinma Egbukichi and Steven Yu for assistance.

Supplementary material

13414_2013_605_MOESM1_ESM.doc (85 kb)
ESM 1 (DOC 85 kb)


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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mary C. Potter
    • 1
    • 3
    Email author
  • Brad Wyble
    • 2
  • Carl Erick Hagmann
    • 1
  • Emily S. McCourt
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Brain and Cognitive SciencesMassachusetts Institute of TechnologyCambridgeUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyPennsylvania State UniversityCollege ParkUSA
  3. 3.Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences46-4125 Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyCambridgeUSA

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