Functional Consequences of Compositional Spatial Representations Elicited During Conceptual Control of Visual Spatial Attention

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Reference frames are ubiquitous in spatial cognition, and they have been especially important in the visual attention literature. Researchers typically invoke these constructs to explain how the same physical location can be defined in different ways depending on changes in the reference point. However, when researchers invoke reference frames for this purpose, they also tend to invoke a construct—the Cartesian coordinate system—that has a specific compositional structure. This conclusion may not be warranted though because reference frames can be used to define a location without being compositional in nature. The present study used an attention cuing paradigm to examine the potential consequences of encoding spatial locations within compositional (coordinate) spatial representations. Experiment 1 used 75% valid, compositional cues that conveyed separate information about the likely direction and distance of the target. The main results were consistent with the notion that a Cartesian coordinate reference system was used to interpret these cues which in turn elicited a compositional gradient that reflected the combined activation arising from the separate spatial dimensions. Experiment 2 ruled out an alternative account and Experiment’s 3 and 4 examined the dynamic nature of these gradients over time. These findings were interpreted within a theory of conceptual control that distinguished between conceptual and perceptual representations of space. Conceptual representations are compositional and can be used to guide attention from one object to another. But conceptual representations depend on noncompositional, perceptual representations to bind the activations arising from their separate spatial dimensions, much like nonspatial feature dimensions do.

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