Letter | Published:

Sustained division of the attentional spotlight

Nature volume 424, pages 309312 (17 July 2003) | Download Citation

Subjects

  • A Corrigendum to this article was published on 04 December 2003

Abstract

By voluntarily directing attention to a specific region of a visual scene, we can improve our perception of stimuli at that location1. This ability to focus attention upon specific zones of the visual field has been described metaphorically as a moveable spotlight or zoom lens that facilitates the processing of stimuli within its ‘beam’2,3. A long-standing controversy has centred on the question of whether the spotlight of spatial attention has a unitary beam or whether it can be divided flexibly to disparate locations2,4,5,6. Evidence supporting the unitary spotlight view has come from numerous behavioural3,7,8,9,10 and electrophysiological11,12 studies. Recent experiments, however, indicate that the spotlight of spatial attention may be divided between non-contiguous zones of the visual field for very brief stimulus exposures (<100 ms)13,14. Here we use an electrophysiological measure of attentional allocation (the steady-state visual evoked potential) to show that the spotlight may be divided between spatially separated locations (excluding interposed locations) over more extended time periods. This spotlight division appears to be accomplished at an early stage of visual-cortical processing.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

References

  1. 1.

    Attentional Processing (Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1995)

  2. 2.

    & The attention system of the human brain. Annu. Rev. Neurosci. 13, 25–42 (1990)

  3. 3.

    & Allocation of attention in the visual field. J. Exp. Psychol. Hum. Percept. Perform. 11, 583–597 (1985)

  4. 4.

    & Theory of attentional operations in shape identification. Psychol. Rev. 96, 101–124 (1989)

  5. 5.

    & Optimal allocation of cognitive resources to spatial locations. J. Exp. Psychol. Hum. Percept. Perform. 3, 201–211 (1977)

  6. 6.

    & Splitting focal attention. J. Exp. Psychol. Hum. Percept. Perform. 18, 837–848 (1992)

  7. 7.

    , & Attention and detection of signals. J. Exp. Psychol. Gen. 109, 160–174 (1980)

  8. 8.

    & Attentional distribution in the visual field during same-different judgements as assessed by response competition. Percept. Psychophys. 53, 134–144 (1993)

  9. 9.

    , & Splitting vs. shared visual attention: An empirical commentary on Castiello & Umilta (1992). J. Exp. Psychol. Hum. Percept. Perform. 24, 350–357 (1998)

  10. 10.

    & Spatial constraints on the voluntary control of attention across visual space. Can. J. Psychol. 41, 474–489 (1987)

  11. 11.

    Attending to quadrants and ring-shaped regions: ERP effects of visual attention in different spatial selection tasks. Psychophysiology 36, 491–503 (1999)

  12. 12.

    et al. Attention to adjacent and separate positions in space: An electrophysiological analysis. Percept. Psychophys. 56, 42–52 (1994)

  13. 13.

    & Evidence for split attentional foci. J. Exp. Psychol. Hum. Percept. Perform. 26, 834–846 (2000)

  14. 14.

    & Further evidence for the division of attention between noncontiguous locations. Vis. Cognit. 5, 217–256 (1998)

  15. 15.

    Human Brain Electrophysiology: Evoked Potentials and Evoked Magnetic Fields in Science and Medicine (Elsevier, New York, 1989)

  16. 16.

    et al. Effects of spatial selective attention on the steady-state visual evoked potential in the 20–28 Hz range. Cognit. Brain Res. 6, 249–261 (1998)

  17. 17.

    & Spatial attention has different effects on the magno- and parvocellular pathways. NeuroReport 10, 2755–2762 (1999)

  18. 18.

    , & The time course of cortical facilitation during cued shifts of spatial attention. Nature Neurosci. 1, 631–634 (1998)

  19. 19.

    et al. in Oscillatory Event-related Brain Dynamics (eds Pantev, C., Elbert, T. & Lütkenhöner, B.) 325–342 (Plenum, New York, 1994)

  20. 20.

    & Attention gating in short-term visual memory. Psychol. Rev. 93, 180–206 (1986)

  21. 21.

    & Dynamics of automatic controlled visual attention. Science 238, 778–780 (1987)

  22. 22.

    , & Direct measurement of attentional dwell time in human vision. Nature 369, 313–315 (1994)

  23. 23.

    & Evidence for distinct attentional bottlenecks in attention switching and attentional blink tasks. J. Gen. Psychol. 127, 6–26 (2000)

  24. 24.

    , , & Are attentional dwell times inconsistent with serial visual search? Psychonom. Bull. Rev. 3, 360–365 (1996)

  25. 25.

    & Can the attentional spotlight be shaped like a doughnut? Evidence from steady state visual evoked potentials. Psychol. Sci. 13, 119–124 (2002)

  26. 26.

    , & Magentoencephalographic recording of steady-state visual evoked cortical activity. Brain Topogr. 9, 163–168 (1997)

  27. 27.

    et al. Combining steady-state visual evoked potentials and fMRI to localize brain activity during selective attention. Hum. Brain Mapp. 5, 287–292 (1997)

  28. 28.

    & Spatial selective attention affects early extrastriate but not striate components of the visual evoked potential. J. Cognit. Neurosci. 8, 387–402 (1996)

  29. 29.

    et al. Putting spatial attention on the map: Timing and localization of stimulus selection processes in striate and extrastriate visual areas. Vis. Res. 41, 1437–1457 (2001)

  30. 30.

    , & Identification of early visual evoked potential generators by retinotopic and topographic analyses. Hum. Brain Mapp. 2, 170–187 (1995)

Download references

Acknowledgements

We thank N. Williams, H. Messmer and C.-M. Giabbiconi for help in data recording. This work was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and by NIMH.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. *Institut für Allgemeine Psychologie, Universität Leipzig, Seeburgstrasse 14–20, 04103 Leipzig, Germany

    • M. M. Müller
    •  & T. Gruber
  2. †School of Psychology, Liverpool John Moores University, 15–21 Webster Street, Liverpool L3 2ET, UK

    • P. Malinowski
  3. ‡Department of Neurosciences, University of California at San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, California 92093-0608, USA

    • S. A. Hillyard

Authors

  1. Search for M. M. Müller in:

  2. Search for P. Malinowski in:

  3. Search for T. Gruber in:

  4. Search for S. A. Hillyard in:

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to M. M. Müller.

About this article

Publication history

Received

Accepted

Published

DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nature01812

Further reading

Comments

By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.