Voluntary attentional control is the ability to selectively focus on a subset of visual information in the presence of other competing stimuli. While it is well established that this capability is a marker of cognitive control that allows for flexible, goal-driven behavior, it is still an open question how robust it is. In this study we contrasted voluntary attentional control with the most frequent source of automatic, involuntary attentional orienting in daily life: shifts of attention prior to goal-directed eye and hand movements. In a multi-tasking paradigm, we asked participants to attend at a location while planning eye or hand movements elsewhere. We observed that voluntary attentional control suffered with every simultaneous action plan. Crucially, this impairment occurred even when we reduced task difficulty and memory load, factors known to interfere with attentional control. Furthermore, the performance cost was limited to voluntary attention. We observed simultaneous attention benefits at two movement targets without attentional competition between them. This demonstrates that the visual system allows for the concurrent representation of multiple attentional foci. It further reveals that voluntary attentional control is extremely fragile and dominated by automatic, premotor shifts of attention. We propose that action-driven selection disrupts voluntary attention and plays a superordinate role for visual selection.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience