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Attentional weighting: A possible account of visual field asymmetries in visual search?

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image of Spatial Vision
For more content, see Multisensory Research and Seeing and Perceiving.

Several previous visual search studies measuring reaction times have demonstrated scanning biases across the visual field (i.e.a tendency to begin a serial search in a particular region of space). In the present study, we measured visual discrimination thresholds for a target presented amongst distractors using displays that were short enough to greatly reduce the potential for serial (i.e.scanning) search. For both a motion and orientation task, subjects' performance was significantly better when the target appeared in the inferior, as compared to the superior, visual field (no differences were observed between left and right visual fields). These findings suggest that subjects may divide attention unevenly across the visual field when searching for a target amongst distractors, a phenomenon we refer to as 'attentional weighting'. To rule out the possibility that these visual field asymmetries were sensory in nature, thresholds were also measured for conditions in which subjects' attention was directed to the location of the target stimulus, either because it was presented alone in the display or because a spatial cue directed subjects' attention to the location of that target presented amongst distractors. Under these conditions, visual field asymmetries were smaller (or non-existent), suggesting that sensory factors (such as crowding) are unlikely to account for our results. In addition, analyses of set-size effects (obtained by comparing thresholds for a single target vs. the target presented amongst distractors) could be accounted for by an unlimited capacity model, suggesting that multiple stimuli can be processed simultaneously without any limitations at an early stage of sensory processing. Taken together, these findings suggest the possible existence of biases in attentional weighting at a late stage of processing. The bias appears to favor the inferior visual field, which may arise from the fact that there is more ecologically-relevant information in this region of space.


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