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Contextual cueing (also referred to as "Contextual Cuing") is a concept in psychology that refers to the manner in which the human brain gathers information from visual elements and their surroundings. The term was coined by Drs. Marvin Chun and Yuhong Jiang of Yale University, and was originally published in June 1998[1].

Contextual cueing is defined as an attentional guidance or facilitation effect derived from past experiences of (mostly hidden) regularities of the (mainly visual) world. In other words, visual attention can be guided by incidentally acquired knowledge about spatial invariants. Spatial invariants can be the objects around a given target object, their spatial layout, their trajectories, etc. This means that when you are searching for some visual object that is repeatedly surrounded by the same objects, or by objects in the same locations, or by objects following the same trajectories, you will be faster to find the object you are looking for. However, if the object is surrounded by different objects, or by displaced objects, or by objects randomly moving around, each time you look for it, then you will not be faster to find the given object.

The contextual cueing effect has several main characteristics, in terms of underlying learning and memory processes[1]: (1) it reflects an acquired sensitivity to meaningful regularities and covariances between objects and events in a scene; (2) implicit learning processes allow this complex information about the stimulus environment to be acquired without intention or awareness; (3) memory representations involved are unconscious, highly robust, instance-based, episodic, and distinctive (i.e., specific to training contexts); (4) they interact with general-purpose spatial attention mechanisms to guide search within complex visual arrays; (5) contextual cueing is a form of memory-based automaticity.

In general, the contextual cueing paradigm is especially interesting for the study of implicit learning and consciousness because existing results indicate that implicitly acquired knowledge can guide visual attention and thereby shape the way we consciously perceive visual scenes (since we are mostly aware of those things we attend to).

Furthermore, the contextual cueing paradigm differs from other implicit learning paradigms in certain interesting ways and may therefore allow for new insights into the nature of implicit learning in general: (1) learning is very unlikely to involve any kind of rule-abstraction, since there are no abstract rules to be discovered; (2) it does not engage any kind of motor learning, since motor responses do not correlate (by design) with the relevant knowledge of the association between context configurations and target locations; (3) it seems to involve brain structures different from those used to perform other implicit learning tasks (Chun & Phelps, 1999), since patients with medial temporal lesions may show preserved (if somewhat reduced) performance in standard implicit learning tasks, while showing no contextual cueing effect at all.

Finally, exploring implicit learning of visuo-spatial invariants is likely to yield new insights into the cognitive mechanisms implied in everyday life situations of navigation in space, which have so far been largely described and conceptualized in terms of explicit and symbolic knowledge. However, for principled reasons exposed in following chapters, such activities are likely to lead to the acquisition of implicit knowledge, which is largely ignored by current models of spatial cognition. One striking anecdotal example, that hints at the existence of such implicit learning in spatial navigation, is that you have surely already experienced situations where you found yourself in an unknown supermarket and still somehow found your way around to certain things relatively easily without being able to fully verbalize your knowledge about the structure of the supermarkets you have been to. And you will surely be even more aware of the existence of implicit expectations about your “prototypical” supermarket layout, when you do not find things were they “ought” to be.


  1. ^ a b Chun, M; Marvin Chun and Yuhong Jiang (1998). "Contextual cueing: Implicit learning and memory of visual context guides spatial attention". Cognitive Psychology 36 (1): 28–71. doi:10.1006/cogp.1998.0681.  


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