Contrasting theories of visual attention emphasize selection by spatial location, visual features (such as motion or colour) or whole objects. Here we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to test key predictions of the object-based theory, which proposes that pre-attentive mechanisms segment the visual array into discrete objects, groups, or surfaces, which serve as targets for visual attention. Subjects viewed stimuli consisting of a face transparently superimposed on a house, with one moving and the other stationary. In different conditions, subjects attended to the face, the house or the motion. The magnetic resonance signal from each subject's fusiform face area, parahippocampal place area and area MT/MST provided a measure of the processing of faces, houses and visual motion, respectively. Although all three attributes occupied the same location, attending to one attribute of an object (such as the motion of a moving face) enhanced the neural representation not only of that attribute but also of the other attribute of the same object (for example, the face), compared with attributes of the other object (for example, the house). These results cannot be explained by models in which attention selects locations or features, and provide physiological evidence that whole objects are selected even when only one visual attribute is relevant.