The effect of load on spatial attention depends on preview: Evidence from a reading study

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Abstract

The spatio-temporal distribution of covert attention has usually been studied under unfamiliar tasks with static viewing. It is important to extend this work to familiar tasks such as reading where sequential eye movements are made. Our previous work with reading showed that covert spatial attention around the gaze location is affected by the fixated word frequency, or the processing load exerted by the word, as early as 40ms into the fixation. Here, we hypothesised that this early effect of frequency is only possible when the word is previewed and thus pre-processed before being fixated. We tested this hypothesis by preventing preview. We investigated the dynamics of spatial attention around the gaze location while the observer read strings of random words. The words were either always exposed (normal preview) or only exposed while being fixated (masked preview). We probed spatial attention when a target word with either high or low printed frequency – or low or high load, respectively – was fixated. The results confirmed that, early in a fixation, allocation of spatial attention 6 characters from the gaze was affected by the word's frequency but only when the word was exposed before being fixated, so that processing of the word could start before it was fixated. Our results indicate that the ongoing processing load of a word is modulated by its pre-processing and affects the dynamics of covert spatial attention around the word once it is fixated.

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