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Attentional Window Set by Expected Relevance of Environmental Signals
Published: Thursday, June 16, 2011
Author: Marije van Beilen et al.

by Marije van Beilen, Remco Renken, Erik S. Groenewold, Frans W. Cornelissen

The existence of an attentional window—a limited region in visual space at which attention is directed—has been invoked to explain why sudden visual onsets may or may not capture overt or covert attention. Here, we test the hypothesis that observers voluntarily control the size of this attentional window to regulate whether or not environmental signals can capture attention. We have used a novel approach to test this: participants eye-movements were tracked while they performed a search task that required dynamic gaze-shifts. During the search task, abrupt onsets were presented that cued the target positions at different levels of congruency. The participant knew these levels. We determined oculomotor capture efficiency for onsets that appeared at different viewing eccentricities. From these, we could derive the participant's attentional window size as a function of onset congruency. We find that the window was small during the presentation of low-congruency onsets, but increased monotonically in size with an increase in the expected congruency of the onsets. This indicates that the attentional window is under voluntary control and is set according to the expected relevance of environmental signals for the observer's momentary behavioral goals. Moreover, our approach provides a new and exciting method to directly measure the size of the attentional window.