Evidence for unlimited capacity processing of simple features in visual cortex

J Vis. 2017 Jun 1;17(6):19. doi: 10.1167/17.6.19.


Performance in many visual tasks is impaired when observers attempt to divide spatial attention across multiple visual field locations. Correspondingly, neuronal response magnitudes in visual cortex are often reduced during divided compared with focused spatial attention. This suggests that early visual cortex is the site of capacity limits, where finite processing resources must be divided among attended stimuli. However, behavioral research demonstrates that not all visual tasks suffer such capacity limits: The costs of divided attention are minimal when the task and stimulus are simple, such as when searching for a target defined by orientation or contrast. To date, however, every neuroimaging study of divided attention has used more complex tasks and found large reductions in response magnitude. We bridged that gap by using functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure responses in the human visual cortex during simple feature detection. The first experiment used a visual search task: Observers detected a low-contrast Gabor patch within one or four potentially relevant locations. The second experiment used a dual-task design, in which observers made independent judgments of Gabor presence in patches of dynamic noise at two locations. In both experiments, blood-oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) signals in the retinotopic cortex were significantly lower for ignored than attended stimuli. However, when observers divided attention between multiple stimuli, BOLD signals were not reliably reduced and behavioral performance was unimpaired. These results suggest that processing of simple features in early visual cortex has unlimited capacity.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology
  • Brain Mapping / methods*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Orientation
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Visual Cortex / physiology*
  • Visual Fields
  • Young Adult