Sustained division of the attentional spotlight

Nature. 2003 Jul 17;424(6946):309-12. doi: 10.1038/nature01812.


By voluntarily directing attention to a specific region of a visual scene, we can improve our perception of stimuli at that location. This ability to focus attention upon specific zones of the visual field has been described metaphorically as a moveable spotlight or zoom lens that facilitates the processing of stimuli within its 'beam'. A long-standing controversy has centred on the question of whether the spotlight of spatial attention has a unitary beam or whether it can be divided flexibly to disparate locations. Evidence supporting the unitary spotlight view has come from numerous behavioural and electrophysiological studies. Recent experiments, however, indicate that the spotlight of spatial attention may be divided between non-contiguous zones of the visual field for very brief stimulus exposures (&<100 ms). Here we use an electrophysiological measure of attentional allocation (the steady-state visual evoked potential) to show that the spotlight may be divided between spatially separated locations (excluding interposed locations) over more extended time periods. This spotlight division appears to be accomplished at an early stage of visual-cortical processing.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Attention / physiology*
  • Electrophysiology
  • Eye Movements / physiology
  • Fixation, Ocular / physiology
  • Humans
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Visual Fields / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*