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What is visual saliency? How does it influence the way children learn?
Featured Scientists: Matt Tong, PEN Network, email:, Chris Kanan, PEN Network, email:

What is visual saliency? How does it influence the way children learn?
Something is visually salient if it stands out from its surroundings and attracts your attention. The portion of our retina responsible for sharp vision is centrally located and surprisingly small, meaning that we tend to make eye movements to look at what we’re focused on or thinking about. A waving hand or flashing light are examples of things that are intrinsically salient - regardless of what task you’re performing, these sorts of stimuli will tend to capture your attention and attract your gaze. Salience also appears when you talk about “pop out” effects. A red target object is easy to find among green distractor objects and remains easy to find regardless of how many green distractor objects there are - the red target pops out. Sometimes the task you’re trying to perform will make things more or less salient. For example, if you’re looking for a man with a beard, other bearded men will attract your attention. In regards to children, attention is drawn to salient objects - anyone who’s spent any time around children knows that getting them to pay attention is an important way of getting them to learn. Infants find things like faces and jingling car keys quite salient and you can easily observe how focused they become on such things. Focused attention facilitates learning, so we tend to learn the most about objects we find most interesting.

How can the information you gather from your studies be translated into the classroom to help students learn?
Because humans are visual creatures, a better understanding of visual attention gives key insights into how we perceive and understand the world. Advances in this area are so important to understanding how we think and learn that it is sure to have a large impact in how we educate our students. More immediately, educational materials such as books and computer programs designed with saliency in mind may be more successful at keeping a child’s attention by ensuring that important items have high salience while distracting items have low salience. The SUN model in particular emphasizes that visual novelty attracts attention. Proper use of salience could substantially improve children’s rate of knowledge acquisition, especially in young and easily distracted children.

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