In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Spatial Attention

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Spotlight Metaphor
  • Shifting Attention
  • Object-Based Attention
  • Feature-Based Attention
  • Measuring Spatial Attention
  • Attentional Gradient
  • Attentional Zoom
  • Splitting Attention
  • Why Is Spatial Attention Necessary?
  • Attentional Capture and Attentional Guidance
  • A Few Theories of Attention
  • Perceptual Load
  • Guidance and Working Memory

Psychology Spatial Attention
Kyle R. Cave, Junha Chang
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0214


Our perceptual systems cannot immediately process all of the sensory information that they receive. This overloading is especially apparent in vision. No matter what environment you are in, there are probably multiple objects and complex configurations of things in front of you, all projecting images onto your retina. The visual system is phenomenally good at identifying these objects, and at understanding the complex spatial arrangements among them. It cannot, however, do it all at once. The visual system and other perceptual systems are forced to choose which parts of the incoming information flow must be processed immediately, which parts can be left for later processing, and which can be ignored entirely. This selection process is referred to as attention, and the decisions about selection are based on a quick preliminary processing of the incoming sensory information, combined with our expectations of what we expect to find in the current environment and our goals about what we need to know. Much of the research in attention has examined selection in vision, and this description of attention will concentrate on visual selection. It became evident in early studies that attention often selected input coming from one location or region in the visual field, while the rest of the visual field was less fully processed or inhibited. There are two aspects to spatial selection in vision. The first is the control of eye movements. When we identify an important visual object, we position our eyes so that the image of that object falls in the center of our retinas. By doing so, we are allocating the densely packed photoreceptors of the fovea to this stimulus, so that it is represented at the highest spatial resolution. Even without moving our eyes, however, we can shift attention from one part of the visual field to another. This ability to favor stimuli from one location over another is called covert spatial attention, and it has been demonstrated by many experiments, a number of which are described here.

General Overviews

Many summaries of attention start by quoting William James’s description of attention as “the taking possession of the mind . . . of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects” (James 1890, vol. 1, p. 403). Pashler 1998 provides a more fully developed exploration of many different aspects of attention. Fawcett, et al. 2015 presents a recent collection of summaries by researchers from various subfields of attention, and Mangun 2012 and Mangun 2013 are two additional collections that focus on the neural mechanisms of attention.

  • Fawcett, J. M., E. F. Risko, and A. Kingstone, eds. 2015. The handbook of attention. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    A collection of up-to-date summaries of some of the recent work in attention.

  • James, W. 1890. The principles of psychology. 2 vols. New York: Henry Holt.

    This classic work provided a foundation for the study of many different aspects of psychology. The observations presented here about attention have stood up well over the years.

  • Mangun, G. R., ed. 2012. Neuroscience of attention: Attentional control and selection. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Our understanding of attention has been recently expanded by experiments using the methods of cognitive neuroscience. This collection reviews this active and growing research area.

  • Mangun, G. R., ed. 2013. Cognitive electrophysiology of attention: Signals of the mind. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

    Another collection of reviews of experiments on the cognitive neuroscience of attention.

  • Pashler, H. E. 1998. The psychology of attention. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    A thorough and thoughtful review of research on many different aspects of attention, providing a good view of the long history of work in this area.

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