Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Spatial Attention as a Necessary Preliminary to Early Processes in Reading

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Spatial Attention as a Necessary Preliminary to Early Processes in Reading

Article excerpt


One major theory of the relation between spatial attention and visual word recognition holds that the former is a necessary condition for the latter to begin. A different major theory asserts that although spatial attention can facilitate the latter, it is not a necessary condition. These two theories were pitted against each other experimentally. Spatial attention was operationalized in terms of the effect of a spatial precue on the time to name a target word that appeared above or below fixation. A masked prime word was presented before the target. The critical difference between experiments was cue validity (50% in Experiments 1a and 2a and 100% in Experiments 1b and 2b). Repetition priming was observed when the prime appeared in the uncued prime location in Experiments 1a and 2a hut not in Experiments 1b or 2b. These results are inconsistent with the claim that visual word recognition does not depend on spatial attention. Discussion centres on the distribution of spatial attention across target locations as a function of cue validity.

There are voluminous and deep experimental literatures on, respectively, visuo-spatial attention (see Pashler, 1998) and visual word recognition by skilled readers (a basic process without which reading comprehension would be impossible; Coltheart, Rastle, Perry, Langdon, & Ziegler, 2001). A much smaller literature considers the relation between these two different literatures. The present research considers the two major theories of the relation between visuo-spatial attention and visual word recognition and reports four experiments in which these different accounts are pitted against each other.

One of these theories asserts that, for visual word recognition to start, it depends upon spatial attention being directed at the word (McCann, Folk, & Johnston, 1992; Stolz, 1996; Stolz & McCann, 2000). The other theory asserts that while spatial attention facilitates such processing, visual word recognition can take place in the absence of spatial attention being directed at the word (Brown, Gore, & Carr, 2002). Indeed, the latter account is embedded in the classical view that skilled word recognition is "automatic" throughout in that it operates in the absence of both attention and intention. The presentation of a word triggers obligatory stimulus-driven processing that is ballistic and cumulates in lexical-semantic activation (Brown et al., 2002; Marcel, 1983; Posner & Snyder, 1975 among many others).

Experimental work on this issue has operationally defined spatial attention in terms of the effect that a spatial cue has on visual word recognition when it precedes the target and either occurs in the location where the target will occur (a valid cue), or in a different location (an invalid cue). Valid cueing yields faster lexical decision times than invalid cueing (McCann et al., 1992). McCann et al. argued that when the target was presented at a cued location, spatial attention was at that location and therefore target processing could begin immediately. However, when the spatial cue was invalid, and hence the target appeared in a different location, processing of the target was delayed until spatial attention could be re-oriented to the new target location. Moreover, McCann et al. reported that high-frequency words (those that occur often in print) were processed faster than lower-frequency words and valid cueing benefited these two classes of words to the same extent relative to an invalid cue (i.e., additive effects of frequency and spatial cueing on RT). McCann et al. took this result as support for their claim that spatial attention is required before processes involved in visual word recognition can begin (or at least whatever stage is influenced by frequency must wait for spatial attention to be directed to the word).

Brown et al. (2002) raised a number of theoretical reservations about the McCann et al. (1992) procedure, and reported a series of experiments that they interpreted as evidence that although spatial cueing benefits word processing, visual word recognition can proceed in the absence of spatial attention. …

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