Changes in the distribution of sustained attention alter the perceived structure of visual space

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Abstract

Visual spatial attention is a critical process that allows for the selection and enhanced processing of relevant objects and locations. While studies have shown attentional modulations of perceived location and the representation of distance information across multiple objects, there remains disagreement regarding what influence spatial attention has on the underlying structure of visual space. The present study utilized a method of magnitude estimation in which participants must judge the location of briefly presented targets within the boundaries of their individual visual fields in the absence of any other objects or boundaries. Spatial uncertainty of target locations was used to assess perceived locations across distributed and focused attention conditions without the use of external stimuli, such as visual cues. Across two experiments we tested locations along the cardinal and 45° oblique axes. We demonstrate that focusing attention within a region of space can expand the perceived size of visual space; even in cases where doing so makes performance less accurate. Moreover, the results of the present studies show that when fixation is actively maintained, focusing attention along a visual axis leads to an asymmetrical stretching of visual space that is predominantly focused across the central half of the visual field, consistent with an expansive gradient along the focus of voluntary attention. These results demonstrate that focusing sustained attention peripherally during active fixation leads to an asymmetrical expansion of visual space within the central visual field.

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