The blinking spotlight of attention

Rufin VanRullen*, Thomas Carlson, Patrick Cavanagh

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

179 Citations (Scopus)


Increasing evidence suggests that attention can concurrently select multiple locations; yet it is not clear whether this ability relies on continuous allocation of attention to the different targets (a "parallel" strategy) or whether attention switches rapidly between the targets (a periodic "sampling" strategy). Here, we propose a method to distinguish between these two alternatives. The human psychometric function for detection of a single target as a function of its duration can be used to predict the corresponding function for two or more attended targets. Importantly, the predicted curves differ, depending on whether a parallel or sampling strategy is assumed. For a challenging detection task, we found that human performance was best reflected by a sampling model, indicating that multiple items of interest were processed in series at a rate of approximately seven items per second. Surprisingly, the data suggested that attention operated in this periodic regime, even when it was focused on a single target. That is, attention might rely on an intrinsically periodic process.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)19204-19209
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number49
Publication statusPublished - 4 Dec 2007
Externally publishedYes


  • Oscillation
  • Parallel vs. serial


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