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Atten Percept Psychophys. 2019 Dec 12. doi: 10.3758/s13414-019-01916-z. [Epub ahead of print]

Visual word recognition: Evidence for a serial bottleneck in lexical access.

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Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA.
Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, University of Washington, 1715 Columbia Rd NE, Box 357988, Seattle, WA, 98195, USA.
Department of Psychology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA.


Reading is a demanding task, constrained by inherent processing capacity limits. Do those capacity limits allow for multiple words to be recognized in parallel? In a recent study, we measured semantic categorization accuracy for nouns presented in pairs. The words were replaced by post-masks after an interval that was set to each subject's threshold, such that with focused attention they could categorize one word with ~80% accuracy. When subjects tried to divide attention between both words, their accuracy was so impaired that it supported a serial processing model: on each trial, subjects could categorize one word but had to guess about the other. In the experiments reported here, we investigated how our previous result generalizes across two tasks that require lexical access but vary in the depth of semantic processing (semantic categorization and lexical decision), and across different masking stimuli, word lengths, lexical frequencies and visual field positions. In all cases, the serial processing model was supported by two effects: (1) a sufficiently large accuracy deficit with divided compared to focused attention; and (2) a trial-by-trial stimulus processing tradeoff, meaning that the response to one word was more likely to be correct if the response to the other was incorrect. However, when the task was to detect colored letters, neither of those effects occurred, even though the post-masks limited accuracy in the same way. Altogether, the results are consistent with the hypothesis that visual processing of words is parallel but lexical access is serial.


Attention: divided attention and inattention; Attention: theoretical and computational models; Visual word recognition


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