The effect of cognitive load on horizontal and vertical spatial asymmetries

Laterality. 2021 Nov;26(6):706-724. doi: 10.1080/1357650X.2021.1920972. Epub 2021 Apr 27.


Healthy individuals typically show a leftward attentional bias in the allocation of spatial attention along the horizontal plane, a phenomenon known as pseudoneglect, which relies on a right hemispheric dominance for visuospatial processing. Also, healthy individuals tend to overestimate the upper hemispace when orienting attention along the vertical plane, a phenomenon that may depend on asymmetric ventral and dorsal visual streams activation. Previous research has demonstrated that when attentional resources are reduced due to increased cognitive load, pseudoneglect is attenuated (or even reversed), due to decreased right-hemispheric activations. Critically, whether and how the reduction of attentional resources under load modulates vertical spatial asymmetries has not been addressed before. We asked participants to perform a line bisection task both with and without the addition of a concurrent auditory working memory task with lines oriented either horizontally or vertically. Results showed that increasing cognitive load reduced the typical leftward/upward bias with no difference between orientations. Our data suggest that the degree of cognitive load affects spatial attention not only in the horizontal but also in the vertical plane. Lastly, the similar effect of load on horizontal and vertical judgements suggests these biases may be related to only partially independent mechanisms.

Keywords: Spatial asymmetry; cognitive load; hemispheric asymmetry; pseudoneglect.

MeSH terms

  • Attention
  • Cognition
  • Functional Laterality*
  • Humans
  • Orientation
  • Space Perception*