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J Vis. 2012 May 25;12(5):9. doi: 10.1167/12.5.9.

Anatomical constraints on attention: hemifield independence is a signature of multifocal spatial selection.

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Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA.


Previous studies have shown independent attentional selection of targets in the left and right visual hemifields during attentional tracking (Alvarez & Cavanagh, 2005) but not during a visual search (Luck, Hillyard, Mangun, & Gazzaniga, 1989). Here we tested whether multifocal spatial attention is the critical process that operates independently in the two hemifields. It is explicitly required in tracking (attend to a subset of object locations, suppress the others) but not in the standard visual search task (where all items are potential targets). We used a modified visual search task in which observers searched for a target within a subset of display items, where the subset was selected based on location (Experiments 1 and 3A) or based on a salient feature difference (Experiments 2 and 3B). The results show hemifield independence in this subset visual search task with location-based selection but not with feature-based selection; this effect cannot be explained by general difficulty (Experiment 4). Combined, these findings suggest that hemifield independence is a signature of multifocal spatial attention and highlight the need for cognitive and neural theories of attention to account for anatomical constraints on selection mechanisms.

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