Friday, December 14, 2007

The spotlight of our attention blinks ~ 7 times per second

This work argues that when we try to attend to multiple relevant targets we do so sequentially rather regarding them in parallel, at a rate of about 7 items per second. I was unable to download the supplement describing the mathematical details of the psychometric modeling they used to distinguish sequential from parallel. Here is the abstract from the article by VanRullen et al.:
Increasing evidence suggests that attention can concurrently select multiple locations; yet it is not clear whether this ability relies on continuous allocation of attention to the different targets (a "parallel" strategy) or whether attention switches rapidly between the targets (a periodic "sampling" strategy). Here, we propose a method to distinguish between these two alternatives. The human psychometric function for detection of a single target as a function of its duration can be used to predict the corresponding function for two or more attended targets. Importantly, the predicted curves differ, depending on whether a parallel or sampling strategy is assumed. For a challenging detection task, we found that human performance was best reflected by a sampling model, indicating that multiple items of interest were processed in series at a rate of approximately seven items per second. Surprisingly, the data suggested that attention operated in this periodic regime, even when it was focused on a single target. That is, attention might rely on an intrinsically periodic process.

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