The spatial resolution of visual attention

Cogn Psychol. 2001 Nov;43(3):171-216. doi: 10.1006/cogp.2001.0755.


Two tasks were used to evaluate the grain of visual attention, the minimum spacing at which attention can select individual items. First, observers performed a tracking task at many viewing distances. When the display subtended less than 1 degrees in size, tracking was no longer possible even though observers could resolve the items and their motions: The items were visible but could not be individuated one from the other. The limiting size for selection was roughly the same whether tracking one or three targets, suggesting that the resolution limit acts independently of the capacity limit of attention. Second, the closest spacing that still allowed individuation of single items in dense, static displays was examined. This critical spacing was about 50% coarser in the radial direction compared to the tangential direction and was coarser in the upper as opposed to the lower visual field. The results suggest that no more than about 60 items can be arrayed in the central 30 degrees of the visual field while still allowing attentional access to each individually. Our data show that selection has a coarse grain, much coarser than visual resolution. These measures of the resolution of attention are based solely on the selection of location and are not confounded with preattentive feature interactions that may contribute to measures from flanker and crowding tasks. The results suggest that the parietal area is the most likely locus of this selection mechanism and that it acts by pointing to the spatial coordinates (or cortical coordinates) of items of interest rather than by holding a representation of the items themselves.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention*
  • Discrimination, Psychological*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological
  • Psychophysics
  • Signal Detection, Psychological*
  • Visual Perception*