Shifting Attention into and out of Objects: Evaluating the Processes Underlying the Object Advantage

By Brown, James M.; Denney, Hope I. | Perception and Psychophysics, May 2007 | Go to article overview

Shifting Attention into and out of Objects: Evaluating the Processes Underlying the Object Advantage


Brown, James M., Denney, Hope I., Perception and Psychophysics


Visual cuing studies have been widely used to demonstrate and explore contributions from both object- and location-based attention systems. A common finding has been a response advantage for shifts of attention occurring within an object, relative to shifts of an equal distance between objects. The present study examined this advantage for within-object shifts in terms of engage and disengage operations within the object- and location-based attention systems. The rationale was that shifts of attention between objects require object-based attention to disengage from one object before shifting to another, something that is not required for shifts of attention within an object or away from a location. One- and two-object displays were used to assess object-based contributions related to disengaging and engaging attention within, between, into, and out of objects. The results suggest that the "object advantage" commonly found in visual cuing experiments in which shifts of attention are required is primarily due to disengage operations associated with object-based attention.

We constantly shift attention from one place to another, and from one object to another, as we look about and interact with our environment. This seemingly effortless behavior involves complex contributions from and interactions between the perception, attention, and eye movement systems. Of particular interest here are contributions to this behavior from attention systems that are thought to operate independently from location- and object-based frames of reference (see, e.g., Leek, Reppa, & Tipper, 2003; Reppa & Leek, 2003; Serences, Liu, & Yantis, 2005; Tipper, Weaver, Jerreat, & Burak, 1994). Whether shifts of attention are location based or object based, they could be described as involving three logical steps or processes associated with visual selective attention: engaging, disengaging, and shifting (Posner, 1980).1 To shift attention from one location or object to another, attention needs to disengage or reorient from the location or object where it is currently deployed (but see Vecera & Flevaris, 2005, and our General Discussion). The present study explores engaging, disengaging, and shifting attention within the location- and object-based systems.

A common way to measure contributions from the location- and object-based systems is to use a visual cuing paradigm (e.g., that of EgIy, Driver, & Rafal, 1994), in which attention is first drawn to a location or object by flashing a cue, and the reaction time (RT) is then measured for a shift to a subsequently presented target. RTs are faster when the cue and target appear at the same location (valid cue) than when they appear at different locations (invalid cue). The increase in RT with invalid cues is an indicator of the processing time required to disengage and shift attention from the cue to the target. The location- and object-based contributions are assessed by comparing invalid cue conditions in which a shift of attention is required either within an object or between objects. A consistent finding in the literature (and in the present study) is that RTs are faster for within-object shifts than for shifts of an equal distance between objects (see Avrahami, 1999; EgIy et al., 1994; EgIy, Rafal, Driver, & Starrveveld, 1994; Lavie & Driver, 1996; Law & Abrams, 2002). Why and how the advantage for within-object shifts (or the disadvantage for between-object shifts) occurs has been a topic of considerable research and d ebate (Avrahami, 1999; Davis, Driver, Pavani, & Shepherd, 2000; Goldsmith & Yeari, 2003; Lamy & Egeth, 2002; Shomstein & Yantis, 2002, 2004; see the General Discussion below for a detailed discussion of alternative theoretical conceptualizations in the context of the present study). Lamy and Egeth's (2002) study using detection, discrimination, and flanker interference tasks illustrated that shifting attention may be a boundary condition for producing object-based effects. …

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