Can indexes be voluntarily assigned in multiple object tracking?

In Multiple Object Tracking (MOT), an observer is able to track 4 – 5 objects in a group of otherwise indistinguishable objects that move independently and unpredictably about a display. According to the Visual Indexing Theory (Pylyshyn, 1989), successful tracking requires that target objects be indexed while they are distinct -- before tracking begins. In the typical MOT task, the target objects are briefly flashed resulting in the automatic assignment of indexes. The question arises whether indexes are only assigned automatically or whether they can be assigned voluntarily in a top-down manner. This study compares several ways of specifying which of 8 items are the targets to be tracked. In the Flash condition the target items were flashed, in the Nonflash condition the targets were the items not flashed, and in the Number condition the targets were specified by number (e.g., items numbered 1-4). The results showed no difference between the three conditions, suggesting that tracking was possible with either voluntary or involuntary indexing. The second experiment tested the hypothesis that voluntary indexing is possible only if the target items are visited serially. The conditions were the same as experiment 1 except that the time available for index assignment was too short to allow targets to be visited serially. In this experiment, targets flashed only once (or, in the Numbers condition, remained visible for about 400 ms). The results showed a decrease in tracking performance for the Number condition, but the Flash and the Nonflash conditions did not differ, suggesting that as long as the designation of targets was done rapidly, the observer did not have to visit each target serially in order to index it. These results suggest that indexing can occur both automatically and voluntarily, and without serially visiting them, so long as the items are successfully specified.
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