Restricted attentional capacity within but not between sensory modalities: an individual differences approach.
Martens S., Kandula M., Duncan J.
BACKGROUND: Most people show a remarkable deficit to report the second of two targets when presented in close temporal succession, reflecting an attentional blink (AB). An aspect of the AB that is often ignored is that there are large individual differences in the magnitude of the effect. Here we exploit these individual differences to address a long-standing question: does attention to a visual target come at a cost for attention to an auditory target (and vice versa)? More specifically, the goal of the current study was to investigate a) whether individuals with a large within-modality AB also show a large cross-modal AB, and b) whether individual differences in AB magnitude within different modalities correlate or are completely separate. METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: While minimizing differential task difficulty and chances for a task-switch to occur, a significant AB was observed when targets were both presented within the auditory or visual modality, and a positive correlation was found between individual within-modality AB magnitudes. However, neither a cross-modal AB nor a correlation between cross-modal and within-modality AB magnitudes was found. CONCLUSION/SIGNIFICANCE: The results provide strong evidence that a major source of attentional restriction must lie in modality-specific sensory systems rather than a central amodal system, effectively settling a long-standing debate. Individuals with a large within-modality AB may be especially committed or focused in their processing of the first target, and to some extent that tendency to focus could cross modalities, reflected in the within-modality correlation. However, what they are focusing (resource allocation, blocking of processing) is strictly within-modality as it only affects the second target on within-modality trials. The findings show that individual differences in AB magnitude can provide important information about the modular structure of human cognition.