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J Vis. 2013 Jan 9;13(1):12. doi: 10.1167/13.1.12.

Splitting attention reduces temporal resolution from 7 Hz for tracking one object to <3 Hz when tracking three.

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School of Psychology, University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.


Overall performance when tracking moving targets is known to be poorer for larger numbers of targets, but the specific effect on tracking's temporal resolution has never been investigated. We document a broad range of display parameters for which visual tracking is limited by temporal frequency (the interval between when a target is at each location and a distracter moves in and replaces it) rather than by object speed. We tested tracking of one, two, and three moving targets while the eyes remained fixed. Variation of the number of distracters and their speed revealed both speed limits and temporal frequency limits on tracking. The temporal frequency limit fell from 7 Hz with one target to 4 Hz with two targets and 2.6 Hz with three targets. The large size of this performance decrease implies that in the two-target condition participants would have done better by tracking only one of the two targets and ignoring the other. These effects are predicted by serial models involving a single tracking focus that must switch among the targets, sampling the position of only one target at a time. If parallel processing theories are to explain why dividing the tracking resource reduces temporal resolution so markedly, supplemental assumptions will be required.

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