Ensemble perception and focused attention: Two different modes of visual processing to cope with limited capacity

Jongsoo Baek, Sang Chul Chong

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)


The visual system has a limited capacity for dealing with complex and redundant information in a scene. Here, we propose that a distributed attention mode of processing is necessary for coping with this limit, together with a focused attention mode of processing. The distributed attention mode provides a statistical summary of a scene, whereas the focused attention mode provides relevant information for object recognition. In this paper, we claim that a distributed mode of processing is necessary because (1) averaging performance improves with increased set-sizes, (2) even unselected items are likely to contribute to averaging, and (3) the assumption of variable capacity limits in averaging over different set-sizes is not plausible. We then propose how the averaging process can access multiple items over the capacity limit of focused attention. The visual system can represent multiple items as population responses and read out relevant information using the two modes of attention. It can summarize population responses with a broad application of a Gaussian profile (i.e., distributed attention) and represent its peak as the mean. It can focus on relevant population responses with a narrow application of a Gaussian profile (i.e., focused attention) and select important information for object recognition. The two attention modes of processing provide a framework for incorporating two seemingly opposing fields of study (ensemble perception and selective attention) and a unified theory of a coping strategy with our limited capacity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)602-606
Number of pages5
JournalPsychonomic Bulletin and Review
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2020 Aug 1

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF) grant funded by the Korea government (MSIT) (NRF-2019R1A2B5B01070038).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020, The Psychonomic Society, Inc.

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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