Selective attention and the organization of visual information

J Exp Psychol Gen. 1984 Dec;113(4):501-17. doi: 10.1037//0096-3445.113.4.501.


Theories of visual attention deal with the limit on our ability to see (and later report) several things at once. These theories fall into three broad classes. Object-based theories propose a limit on the number of separate objects that can be perceived simultaneously. Discrimination-based theories propose a limit on the number of separate discriminations that can be made. Space-based theories propose a limit on the spatial area from which information can be taken up. To distinguish these views, the present experiments used small (less than 1 degree), brief, foveal displays, each consisting of two overlapping objects (a box with a line struck through it). It was found that two judgments that concern the same object can be made simultaneously without loss of accuracy, whereas two judgments that concern different objects cannot. Neither the similarity nor the difficulty of required discriminations, nor the spatial distribution of information, could account for the results. The experiments support a view in which parallel, preattentive processes serve to segment the field into separate objects, followed by a process of focal attention that deals with only one object at a time. This view is also able to account for results taken to support both discrimination-based and space-based theories.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Attention*
  • Discrimination Learning*
  • Humans
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual
  • Size Perception
  • Space Perception
  • Visual Fields
  • Visual Perception*