Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Change blindness—the failure to detect changes in visual scenes—has often been interpreted as a result of impoverished visual information encoding or as a failure to compare the prechange and postchange scene. In the present electroencephalography study, we investigated whether semantic features of prechange and postchange information are processed unconsciously, even when observers are unaware that a change has occurred. We presented scenes composed of natural objects in which one object changed from one presentation to the next. Object changes were either semantically related (e.g., rail car changed to rail) or unrelated (e.g., rail car changed to sausage). Observers were first asked to detect whether any change had occurred and then to judge the semantic relation of the two objects involved in the change. We found a semantic mismatch ERP effect, that is, a more negative-going ERP for semantically unrelated compared to related changes, originating from a cortical network including the left middle temporal gyrus and occipital cortex and resembling the N400 effect, albeit at longer latencies. Importantly, this semantic mismatch effect persisted even when observers were unaware of the change and the semantic relationship of prechange and postchange object. This finding implies that change blindness does not preclude the encoding of the prechange and postchange objects' identities and possibly even the comparison of their semantic content. Thus, change blindness cannot be interpreted as resulting from impoverished or volatile visual representations or as a failure to process the prechange and postchange object. Instead, change detection appears to be limited at a later, postperceptual stage.