BACKGROUND: The link between cognitive changes in attentional focus and the physiological parameters of the eye is not well understood. The aim of the current work was to examine the role of ocular accommodation, that is, the process of changing the shape of the crystalline lens in order to focus an image onto the retina, in active shifts of visual attention between global and local information. METHOD: Ten adult participants (aged 19 to 27) viewed sequences of complex global/local figures presented at the same location. They were asked to identify either a global or local red target letter and to look for either a global or local letter x (probe) in the sequence following. Target and probe items were separated by a temporal gap of approximately one second. Refraction was measured using a Canon Autorefractor R1 at the time of target appearance and again at the time of probe presentation. Particular interest was paid to trials where participants were required to shift attention either from a local to global level or in the reverse direction. The difference between the two measurements of refraction gave a 'change score' which provided an indication of the change of accommodation. RESULTS: No significant change in refraction was observed when shifting from the local to the global condition. A mean change in refraction of -0.128 dioptres was observed for the global to local condition. The 95 per cent confidence interval for this difference did not overlap zero, indicating a significant change in refraction, which was attributed to an increase in accommodation. DISCUSSION: The results suggest that while a change in accommodation occurs in shifting attention from the global to the local aspect of the complex figures, a similar change is not observed in the reverse direction. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that it is more difficult to restrict attentional focus than it is to widen it.