The interaction of spatial and object pathways: Evidence from Balint's syndrome

Lynn Robertson*, Anne Treisman, Stacia Friedman-Hill, Marcia Grabowecky

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

199 Scopus citations


An earlier report described a patient (RM) with bilateral parietal damage who showed severe binding problems between shape and color and shape and size. When shown two different-colored letters, RM reported a large number of illusory conjunctions (ICs) combining the shape of one letter with the color of the other, even when he was looking directly at one of them and had as long as 10 sec to respond. The lesions also produced severe deficits in locating and reaching for objects, and difficulty in seeing more than one object at a time, resulting in a neuropsychological diagnosis of Balint's syndrome or dorsal simultanagnosia. The pattern of deficits supported predictions of Treisman's Feature Integration Theory (FIT) that the loss of spatial information would lead to binding errors. They further suggested that the spatial information used in binding depends on intact parietal function. In the present paper we extend these findings and examine other deficits in RM that would be predicted by FIT. We show that: (1) Object individuation is impaired, making it impossible for him correctly to count more than one or two objects, even when he is aware that more are present. (2) Visual search for a target defined by a conjunction of features (requiring binding) is impaired, while the detection of a target defined by a unique feature is not. Search for the absence of a feature (O among Qs) is also severely impaired, while search for the presence (Q among Os) is not. Feature absence can only be detected when all the present features are bound to the nontarget items. (3) RM's deficits cannot be attributed to a general binding problem: binding errors were far more likely with simultaneous presentation where spatial information was required than with sequential presentation where time could be used as the medium for binding. (4) Selection for attention was severely impaired, whether it was based on the position of a marker or on some other feature (color). (5) Spatial information seems to exist that RM cannot access, suggesting that feature binding relies on a relatively late stage where implicit spatial information is made explicitly accessible. The data converge to support our conclusions that explicit spatial knowledge is necessary for the perception of accurately bound features, for accurate attentional selection, and for accurate and rapid search for a conjunction of features in a multi-item display. It is obviously necessary for directing attention to spatial locations, but the consequences of impairments in this ability seem also to affect object selection, object individuation, and feature integration. Thus, the functional effects of parietal damage are not limited to the spatial and attentional problems that have long been described in patients with Balint's syndrome. Damage to parietal areas also affects object perception through damage to spatial representations that are fundamental for spatial awareness.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)295-317
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of cognitive neuroscience
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1997

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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