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How does the multi-sensory nature of stimuli influence information processing? Cognitive systems with limited selective attention can elucidate these processes. Six-year-olds, 11-year-olds and 20-year-olds engaged in a visual search task that required them to detect a pre-defined coloured shape under conditions of low or high visual perceptual load. On each trial, a peripheral distractor that could be either compatible or incompatible with the current target colour was presented either visually, auditorily or audiovisually. Unlike unimodal distractors, audiovisual distractors elicited reliable compatibility effects across the two levels of load in adults and in the older children, but high visual load significantly reduced distraction for all children, especially the youngest participants. This study provides the first demonstration that multi-sensory distraction has powerful effects on selective attention: Adults and older children alike allocate attention to potentially relevant information across multiple senses. However, poorer attentional resources can, paradoxically, shield the youngest children from the deleterious effects of multi-sensory distraction. Furthermore, we highlight how developmental research can enrich the understanding of distinct mechanisms controlling adult selective attention in multi-sensory environments.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





156 - 165


Attention development, Children, Cross-modal, Multisensory, Selective attention