Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
When engaged in dynamic visuospatial tasks, the brain copes with perceptual and cognitive processing challenges. During multiple-object tracking (MOT), the number of objects to be tracked (i.e., load) imposes attentional demands, but so does spatial interference from irrelevant objects (i.e., close encounters). Presently, it is not clear whether the effect of load on accuracy solely depends on the number of close encounters. If so, the same cognitive and physiological mechanisms deal with increasing load by preparing for and dealing with spatial interference. However, this has never been directly tested. Such knowledge is important to understand the neurophysiology of dynamic visual attention and resolve conflicting views within visual cognition concerning sources of capacity limitations. We varied the processing challenge in MOT task in two ways: the number of targets and the minimum spatial proximity between targets and distractors. In a first experiment, we measured task-induced pupil dilations and saccades during MOT. In a separate cohort, we measured fMRI activity. In both cohorts, increased load and close encounters (i.e., close spatial proximity) led to reduced accuracy in an additive manner. Load was associated with pupil dilations, whereas close encounters were not. Activity in dorsal attentional areas and frequency of saccades were proportionally larger both with higher levels of load and close encounters. Close encounters recruited additionally ventral attentional areas that may reflect orienting mechanisms. The activity in two brainstem nuclei, ventral tegmental area/substantia nigra and locus coeruleus, showed clearly dissociated patterns. Our results constitute convergent evidence indicating that different mechanisms underlie processing challenges due to load and object spacing.