Traditional explanations of our limited attentional capacity focus on our ability to direct attention to multiple items.Weask whether this difficulty in simultaneously attending to multiple items stems from an inability to effectively represent multiple attended items. Although attending to one of a set of neighboring stimuli can isolate it from competitive interactions in visual cortex, no such isolation should occur if multiple competing items are attended. Indeed, we find that attention is ineffective at enhancing blood oxygen level-dependent signal in visual cortical area V4 when it is directed to three stimuli simultaneously, but only when those three stimuli compete in visual cortex. This suggests that competition may prevent attention from acting as effectively on representations of multiple items as it does on representations of a single item. In contrast to traditional explanations that posit limits in the sources of attentional control, we show that mechanisms at the sites of stimulus representation may also impose limits on our ability to attend to multiple items simultaneously.
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