Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Previous research has shown that attention to a specific location on a uniform visual object spreads throughout the entire object. Here we demonstrate that, similar to the visual system, spatial attention in touch can be object guided. We measured event-related brain potentials to tactile stimuli arising from objects held by observers' hands, when the hands were placed either near each other or far apart, holding two separate objects, or when they were far apart but holding a common object. Observers covertly oriented their attention to the left, to the right, or to both hands, following bilaterally presented tactile cues indicating likely tactile target location(s). Attentional modulations for tactile stimuli at attended compared to unattended locations were present in the time range of early somatosensory components only when the hands were far apart, but not when they were near. This was found to reflect enhanced somatosensory processing at attended locations rather than suppressed processing at unattended locations. Crucially, holding a common object with both hands delayed attentional selection, similar to when the hands were near. This shows that the proprioceptive distance effect on tactile attentional selection arises when distant event locations can be treated as separate and unconnected sources of tactile stimulation, but not when they form part of the same object. These findings suggest that, similar to visual attention, both space- and object-based attentional mechanisms can operate when we select between tactile events on our body surface.