Conscious perception of the visual world depends on neural activity at all levels of the visual system from the retina to regions of parietal and frontal cortex. Neurons in early visual areas have small spatial receptive fields (RFs) and code basic image features; neurons in later areas have large RFs and code abstract features such as behavioral relevance. This hierarchical organization presents challenges to perception: objects compete when they are presented in a single RF, and component object features are coded by anatomically distributed neuronal activity. Recent research has shown that selective attention coordinates the activity of neurons to resolve competition and link distributed object representations. We refer to this ensemble activity as a "coherence field", and propose that voluntary shifts of attention are initiated by a transient control signal that "nudges" the visual system from one coherent state to another.