Bright lights are often used to attract human attention. For example, brightly lit signs, despite often being too bright to look at directly are often used for information and/or advertisement.

Why does this attraction to light occur? I don't see a good reason like how our eyes are attracted to movement, so what's the benefit of it?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You can take a look at melanopsin: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melanopsin#Mechanism , Over the years there has been research to indicate that bright light in general is more promoting of attention and awareness as opposed to dim light. $\endgroup$
    – Alex Stone
    Aug 26, 2015 at 18:08
  • $\begingroup$ Our attention is not attracted by bright lights. Our attention is attracted by changes in light - appearance, disappearance or movement of lights. To convince yourself it is not light per se that attracts your attention, notice that you do not spend all of a sunny day continually glancing upwards. Both changes in light levels and movements are crude indicators that something has happened in your environment, and that is why our visual system is designed to re-focus on both bright lights and movement (and best of all, moving bright lights!) $\endgroup$
    – Idiot Tom
    Oct 5, 2015 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ Hi Tom, welcome to CogSci.SE and thanks for contributing. The aim of this stackexchange is to provide answers that are backed up by evidence. Your answer sounds reasonable, can you support it with some references? $\endgroup$
    – user7759
    Oct 6, 2015 at 8:36
  • $\begingroup$ The matter of saliency is indeed a very interesting one. I'd like to +1, but refrain as I support @MaríaAnt 's critique. please ping me once cites are added. $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Oct 6, 2015 at 12:40

1 Answer 1


In general, evidence suggests that we are attracted to contrast rather than brightness (luminance). For example, the onset of a bright light on a dark background is often used as an exogenous cue for visual attention, but a dark cue on a bright background works just as well. So, signs generally aim to be high contrast against their background. Contrast shows where things change, and hence it is picked up by the visual system for determining edges and objects of importance.

A more specific answer to your question is provided by Vincent et al., 2008. This paper, "Do we look at lights?..." includes discussion of the debate about whether visual saliency attracts attention and eye movements. The short answer is that, while saliency does correlate with where we look, on average and in specific circumstances, it depends a lot on our current task demands and the context. You won't look up at the sun if you are looking for your friend in a crowd.


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