When stimuli compete for sensory processing and response selection, coherent goal-guided behavior requires cognitive control so that task-relevant “targets” rather than irrelevant distractors are selected. It has been shown that reduced cognitive control under high working memory load increases distractor competition for selection. It remains unknown, though, whether cognitive control by working memory has an effect on the earliest levels of sensory processing in primary visual cortex. The present study addressed this question by having subjects perform a selective attention task involving classification of meaningful target objects while also ignoring congruent and incongruent distractor images. The level of cognitive control over distractor competition was varied through a concurrent working memory task of either low (1 digit) or high (6 digits) load. Functional magnetic resonance imaging revealed greater distractor competition effects not only on behavior but also on the sensory correlates in primary visual cortex (areas V1–V2) in conditions of high (vs. low) working memory load. In addition, high working memory load resulted in increased congruency-related functional connectivity between anterior cingulate cortex and V1. These results are the first to establish the neural correlates of distractor competition effects in primary visual cortex and the critical role of working memory in their cognitive control.
attention; cognitive control; fMRI; response competition; working memory
Selective attention involves the relative enhancement of relevant versus irrelevant stimuli. However, whether this relative enhancement involves primarily enhancement of attended stimuli, or suppression of irrelevant stimuli, remains controversial. Moreover, if both enhancement and suppression are involved, whether they result from a single mechanism or separate mechanisms during attentional control or selection is not known. In two experiments using a spatial cuing paradigm with task-relevant targets and irrelevant distractors, target and distracter processing was examined as a function of distractor expectancy. Additionally, in the second study the interaction of perceptual load and distractor expectancy was explored. In both experiments, distractors were either validly cued (70%) or invalidly cued (30%) in order to examine the effects of distractor expectancy on attentional control as well as target and distractor processing. The effects of distractor expectancy were assessed using event-related potentials recorded during the cue-to-target period (preparatory attention) and in response to the task-relevant target stimuli (selective stimulus processing). Analyses of distractor-present displays (anticipated versus unanticipated), showed modulations in brain activity during both the preparatory period and during target processing. The pattern of brain responses suggest both facilitation of attended targets and suppression of unattended distractors. These findings provide evidence for a two-process model of visual spatial selective attention, where one mechanism (facilitation) influences relevant stimuli and another (suppression) acts to filter distracting stimuli.
Selective Attention; Event Related Potential; Inhibition; Vision
Attentional mechanisms are a crucial prerequisite to organize behavior. Most situations may be characterized by a ‘competition’ between salient, but irrelevant stimuli and less salient, relevant stimuli. In such situations top-down and bottom-up mechanisms interact with each other. In the present fMRI study, we examined how interindividual differences in resolving situations of perceptual conflict are reflected in brain networks mediating attentional selection. Doing so, we employed a change detection task in which subjects had to detect luminance changes in the presence and absence of competing distractors. The results show that good performers presented increased activation in the orbitofrontal cortex (BA 11), anterior cingulate (BA 25), inferior parietal lobule (BA 40) and visual areas V2 and V3 but decreased activation in BA 39. This suggests that areas mediating top-down attentional control are stronger activated in this group. Increased activity in visual areas reflects distinct neuronal enhancement relating to selective attentional mechanisms in order to solve the perceptual conflict. Opposed to good performers, brain areas activated by poor performers comprised the left inferior parietal lobule (BA 39) and fronto-parietal and visual regions were continuously deactivated, suggesting that poor performers perceive stronger conflict than good performers. Moreover, the suppression of neural activation in visual areas might indicate a strategy of poor performers to inhibit the processing of the irrelevant non-target feature. These results indicate that high sensitivity in perceptual areas and increased attentional control led to less conflict in stimulus processing and consequently to higher performance in competitive attentional selection.
Although many cognitive models in anxiety propose that an impaired top-down control enhances the processing of task-irrelevant stimuli, few studies have paid attention to task-irrelevant stimuli under a cognitive load task. In the present study, we investigated the effects of the working memory load on attention to task-irrelevant stimuli in trait social anxiety. The results showed that as trait social anxiety increased, participants were unable to disengage from task-irrelevant stimuli identical to the memory cue under low and high working memory loads. Impaired attentional disengagement was positively correlated with trait social anxiety. This impaired attentional disengagement was related to trait social anxiety, but not state anxiety. Our findings suggest that socially anxious people have difficulty in disengaging attention from a task-irrelevant memory cue owing to an impaired top-down control under a working memory load.
Are task-irrelevant stimuli processed to a level enabling individual identification? This question is central both for perceptual processing models and for applied settings (e.g., eye-witness testimony). Lavie’s load theory proposes that working memory actively maintains attentional prioritization of relevant over irrelevant information. Loading working memory thus impairs attentional prioritization, leading to increased processing of task-irrelevant stimuli. Previous research has shown that increased working memory load leads to greater interference effects from response-competing distractors. Here we test the novel prediction that increased processing of irrelevant stimuli under high working memory load should lead to a greater likelihood of incidental identification of entirely irrelevant stimuli. To test this, we asked participants to perform a word-categorization task while ignoring task-irrelevant images. The categorization task was performed during the retention interval of a working memory task with either low or high load (defined by memory set size). Following the final experimental trial, a surprise question assessed incidental identification of the irrelevant image. Loading working memory was found to improve identification of task-irrelevant faces, but not of building stimuli (shown in a separate experiment to be less distracting). These findings suggest that working memory plays a critical role in determining whether distracting stimuli will be subsequently identified.
incidental identification; attention; working memory; load theory
A growing body of literature provides evidence for the prophylactic influence of cardiorespiratory fitness on cognitive decline in older adults. This study examined the association between cardiorespiratory fitness and recruitment of the neural circuits involved in an attentional control task in a group of healthy older adults. Employing a version of the Stroop task, we examined whether higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness were associated with an increase in activation in cortical regions responsible for imposing attentional control along with an up-regulation of activity in sensory brain regions that process task-relevant representations. Higher fitness levels were associated with better behavioral performance and an increase in the recruitment of prefrontal and parietal cortices in the most challenging condition, thus providing evidence that cardiorespiratory fitness is associated with an increase in the recruitment of the anterior processing regions. There was a top-down modulation of extrastriate visual areas that process both task-relevant and task-irrelevant attributes relative to the baseline. However, fitness was not associated with differential activation in the posterior processing regions, suggesting that fitness enhances attentional function by primarily influencing the neural circuitry of anterior cortical regions. This study provides novel evidence of a differential association of fitness with anterior and posterior brain regions, shedding further light onto the neural changes accompanying cardiorespiratory fitness.
cardiorespiratory fitness; Stroop task; cognitive and attentional control
Using data from 34 participants who completed an emotion-word Stroop task during functional magnetic resonance imaging, we examined the effects of adult attachment on neural activity associated with top-down cognitive control in the presence of emotional distractors. Individuals with lower levels of secure-base-script knowledge—reflected in an adult’s inability to generate narratives in which attachment-related threats are recognized, competent help is provided, and the problem is resolved—demonstrated more activity in prefrontal cortical regions associated with emotion regulation (e.g., right orbitofrontal cortex) and with top-down cognitive control (left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and superior frontal gyrus). Less efficient performance and related increases in brain activity suggest that insecure attachment involves a vulnerability to distraction by attachment-relevant emotional information and that greater cognitive control is required to attend to task-relevant, nonemotional information. These results contribute to the understanding of mechanisms through which attachment-related experiences may influence developmental adaptation.
attachment; secure-base-script knowledge; cognitive control; emotion regulation; Stroop; fMRI
The human brain executes cognitive control, such as selection of relevant information in the presence of competing irrelevant information, and cognitive control is essential for us to yield a series of optimal behaviors in our daily life. The present study assessed electrocorticographic gamma-oscillations elicited by cognitive control in the context of the Stroop color-naming paradigm, with a temporal resolution of 10 msec and spatial resolution of 1 cm. Subjects were instructed to overtly read a color word printed in an incongruent color in the reading task, and to overtly name the ink color of a color word printed in an incongruent color in the Stroop color-naming task. The latter task specifically elicited larger gamma-augmentations in the dorsolateral-premotor, dorsolateral-prefrontal and supplementary motor areas with considerable inter-subject spatial variability. Such Stroop color-naming-specific gamma-augmentations occurred approximately 500 to 200 msec prior to overt responses. Electrical stimulation of the sites showing Stroop color-naming-specific gamma-augmentations resulted in temporary naming impairment more frequently than that of the remaining sites. This study has provided direct evidence that a critical process of cognitive control in the context of Stroop color-naming paradigm consists of recruitment of neurons essential for naming located in variable portions of the dorsolateral premotor and prefrontal areas.
cognitive control; executive function; intracranial recording; local field potentials; in-vivo animation of event-related gamma-oscillations
In the visual world, stimuli compete with each other for allocation of the brain’s limited processing resources. Computational models routinely invoke wide-ranging mutually suppressive interactions in spatial priority maps to implement active competition for attentional and saccadic allocation, but such suppressive interactions have not been physiologically described and their existence is controversial. Much evidence implicates the lateral intraparietal area as a candidate priority map in the macaque (Macaca mulatta). Here, we demonstrate that the responses of neurons in LIP to a task-irrelevant distractor are strongly suppressed when the monkey plans saccades to locations outside their receptive fields. Suppression can be evoked both by flashed visual stimuli and by a memorized saccade plan. The suppressive surrounds of LIP neurons are spatially tuned and wide-ranging. Increasing the monkey’s motivation enhances target-distractor discriminability by enhancing both distractor suppression and the saccade goal representation; these changes are accompanied by correlated improvements in behavioral performance.
Surround suppression; motivation; macaque; priority; LIP; saccade
Despite their subjective invisibility, stimuli presented within regions of absolute cortical blindness can both guide forced-choice behavior when they are task-relevant and modulate responses to visible targets when they are task-irrelevant. We here tested three hemianopic patients to learn whether their performance in an attention-demanding rapid serial visual presentation task would be affected by task-irrelevant stimuli. Per trial, nine black letters and one white target letter appeared briefly at fixation; the white letter was to be named at the end of each trial. On 50% of trials, a task-irrelevant disk (−0.6 log contrast) was presented to the blind field; in separate blocks, the same or a very low negative contrast distractor was presented to the sighted field. Mean error rates were high and independent of distractor condition, although the high-contrast sighted-field disk impaired performance significantly in one participant. However, when trials with and without distractors were considered separately, performance was most impaired by the high-contrast disk in the blind field, whereas the same disk in the sighted field had no effect. As this disk was least visible in the blind and most visible in the sighted field, attentional suppression was inversely related to visibility. We suggest that visual awareness, or the processes that generate it and are compromised in the blind hemisphere, enhances or enables effective attentional suppression.
blindsight; rapid serial visual presentation; attentional suppression; target detection; function of conscious sight; primary visual cortex
Momentary reductions of attention can have extremely adverse outcomes, but it remains unclear whether increased distraction from irrelevant stimuli contributes to such outcomes. To investigate this hypothesis, we examined trial-by-trial relationships between brain activity and response time in twenty healthy adults while they performed a cross-modal selective attention task. In each trial, participants identified a relevant visual letter while ignoring an irrelevant auditory letter, which was mapped either to the same response as the visual letter (congruent trials) or to a different response (incongruent trials). As predicted, reductions of attention (i.e., increases of response time) were associated not only with decreased activity in sensory regions that processed the relevant visual stimuli, suggesting a failure to enhance the processing of those stimuli, but also with increased activity in sensory regions that processed the irrelevant auditory stimuli, suggesting a failure to suppress the processing of those stimuli. Reductions of attention were also linked to larger increases of activity in incongruent than in congruent trials in anterior cingulate regions that detect response conflict, suggesting that failing to suppress the sensory processing of the irrelevant auditory stimuli during attentional reductions allowed those stimuli to more readily activate conflicting responses in incongruent trials. These findings indicate that heightened levels of distraction during momentary reductions of attention likely stem, at least in part, from increased processing of irrelevant stimuli.
attention; auditory; visual; response conflict; fMRI; cognitive
Our ability to focus attention on task-relevant information and ignore distractions is reflected by differential enhancement and suppression of neural activity in sensory cortex (i.e., top-down modulation). Such selective, goal-directed modulation of activity may be intimately related to memory, such that the focus of attention biases the likelihood of successfully maintaining relevant information by limiting interference from irrelevant stimuli. Despite recent studies elucidating the mechanistic overlap between attention and memory, the relationship between top-down modulation of visual processing during working memory (WM) encoding and subsequent recognition performance has not yet been established. Here, we provide neurophysiological evidence in healthy, young adults that top-down modulation of early visual processing (< 200 ms from stimulus onset) is intimately related to subsequent WM performance, such that the likelihood of successfully remembering relevant information is associated with limiting interference from irrelevant stimuli. The consequences of a failure to ignore distractors on recognition performance was replicated for two types of feature-based memory, motion direction and color. Moreover, attention to irrelevant stimuli was reflected neurally during the WM maintenance period as an increased memory load. These results suggest that neural enhancement of relevant information is not the primary determinant of high-level performance, but rather, optimal WM performance is dependent on effectively filtering irrelevant information through neural suppression to prevent overloading a limited memory capacity.
working memory; selective attention; top-down modulation; EEG; vision; behavioral performance
Oscillatory alpha-band activity (8–15 Hz) over parieto-occipital cortex in humans plays an important role in suppression of processing for inputs at to-be-ignored regions of space, with increased alpha-band power observed over cortex contralateral to locations expected to contain distractors. It is unclear if similar processes operate during deployment of spatial attention in other sensory modalities. Evidence from lesion patients suggests that parietal regions house supramodal representations of space. The parietal lobes are prominent generators of alpha-oscillations; raising the possibility that alpha is a neural signature of supramodal spatial attention. Further, when spatial attention is deployed within vision, processing of task-irrelevant auditory inputs at attended locations is also enhanced, pointing to automatic links between spatial deployments across senses. Here, we asked whether lateralized alpha-band activity is also evident in a purely auditory spatial-cueing task, and whether it had the same underlying generator configuration as in a purely visuo-spatial task. If common to both sensory-systems, this would provide strong support for “supramodal” attention theory. Alternately, alpha-band differences between auditory and visual tasks would support a sensory-specific account. Lateralized shifts in alpha-band activity were indeed observed during a purely auditory-spatial task. Crucially, there were clear differences in scalp topographies of this alpha-activity depending on the sensory system within which spatial attention was deployed. Findings suggest that parietally-generated alpha-band mechanisms are central to attentional deployments across modalities but that they are invoked in a sensory-specific manner. The data support an interactivity account, whereby a supramodal system interacts with sensory-specific control systems during deployment of spatial attention.
Supramodal Spatial Attention; attention; crossmodal attention; parietal lobe; space; multisensory; Oscillations; Suppression; EEG; Biasing; Cueing
Humans are constantly confronted with environmental stimuli that conflict with task goals and can interfere with successful behavior. Prevailing theories propose the existence of cognitive control mechanisms that can suppress the processing of conflicting input and enhance that of the relevant input. However, the temporal cascade of brain processes invoked in response to conflicting stimuli remains poorly understood. By examining evoked electrical brain responses in a novel, hemifield-specific, visual-flanker task, we demonstrate that task-irrelevant conflicting stimulus input is quickly detected in higher-level executive regions while simultaneously inducing rapid, recurrent modulation of sensory processing in the visual cortex. Importantly, however, both of these effects are larger for individuals with greater incongruency-related reaction time slowing. The combination of neural activation patterns and behavioral interference effects suggest that this initial sensory modulation induced by conflicting stimulus inputs reflects performance-degrading attentional distraction due to their incompatibility, rather than any rapid task-enhancing cognitive control mechanisms. The present findings thus provide neural evidence for a model in which attentional distraction is the key initial trigger for the temporal cascade of processes by which the human brain responds to conflicting stimulus input in the environment.
Several theoretical frameworks have suggested that anxiety/stress impairs cognitive performance. A competing prediction is made by attentional narrowing models that predict that stress decreases the processing of task-irrelevant items, thus benefiting performance when task-irrelevant information interferes with behavior. Critically, previous studies have not evaluated these competing frameworks when potent emotional manipulations are involved. Here, we used threat of bodily harm preceding a color-word Stroop task to test these claims. We found a basic effect of threat consisting of a slowing down of performance during neutral Stroop trials. Furthermore, both facilitation and interference scores were affected by threat of shock in a way that was consistent with a reduced-distractor effect. Taken together, we interpret our findings in terms of two opposing effects of stress on cognitive performance. Although partly consistent with the attentional narrowing hypothesis, both resource models and cognitive breadth models require revision in order to account for the results.
Anxiety; Cognition; Stress; Attentional Narrowing
Recent evidence has shown top-down modulation of the brainstem frequency following response (FFR), generally in the form of signal enhancement from concurrent stimuli or from switching between attention-demanding task stimuli. However, it is also possible that the opposite may be true – the addition of a task, instead of a resting, passive state may suppress the FFR. Here we examined the influence of a subsequent task, and the relevance of the task modality, on signal clarity within the FFR. Participants performed visual and auditory discrimination tasks in the presence of an irrelevant background sound, as well as a baseline consisting of the same background stimuli in the absence of a task. FFR pitch strength and amplitude of the primary frequency response were assessed within non-task stimulus periods in order to examine influences due solely to general cognitive state, independent of stimulus-driven effects. Results show decreased signal clarity with the addition of a task, especially within the auditory modality. We additionally found consistent relationships between the extent of this suppressive effect and perceptual measures such as response time and proclivity towards one sensory modality. Together these results suggest that the current focus of attention can have a global, top-down effect on the quality of encoding early in the auditory pathway.
Load theory of attention proposes that distractor processing is reduced in tasks with high perceptual load that exhaust attentional capacity within task-relevant processing. In contrast, tasks of low perceptual load leave spare capacity that spills over, resulting in the perception of task-irrelevant, potentially distracting stimuli. Tsal and Benoni (2010) find that distractor response competition effects can be reduced under conditions with a high search set size but low perceptual load (due to a singleton color target). They claim that the usual effect of search set size on distractor processing is not due to attentional load but instead attribute this to lower level visual interference. Here, we propose an account for their findings within load theory. We argue that in tasks of low perceptual load but high set size, an irrelevant distractor competes with the search nontargets for remaining capacity. Thus, distractor processing is reduced under conditions in which the search nontargets receive the spillover of capacity instead of the irrelevant distractor. We report a new experiment testing this prediction. Our new results demonstrate that, when peripheral distractor processing is reduced, it is the search nontargets nearest to the target that are perceived instead. Our findings provide new evidence for the spare capacity spillover hypothesis made by load theory and rule out accounts in terms of lower level visual interference (or mere “dilution”) for cases of reduced distractor processing under low load in displays of high set size. We also discuss additional evidence that discounts the viability of Tsal and Benoni's dilution account as an alternative to perceptual load.
attention; perceptual load; dilution; distraction; response competition
Functional neuroimaging studies of endogenous cued attention suggest that a fronto-parietal attentional network keeps track of current task objectives in working memory and enhances activity in posterior sensory regions that underlie the perceptual processing of behaviorally relevant stimuli. Relatively little is known, however, about whether consciously perceived, irrelevant instructional cues can hijack the attentional network, leading to an enhancement of the perceptual processing of irrelevant stimuli. Using a cross-modal attentional cueing task in combination with functional magnetic resonance imaging, we found that such irrelevant cues can indeed hijack the attentional network, as indexed by increased activity in (a) frontal regions that control attention and (b) sensory cortices that underlie the perceptual processing of task-irrelevant stimuli. Furthermore, we found that in left ventrolateral (but not dorsolateral) prefrontal regions, the magnitude of this increased activity varies with whether an irrelevant instructional cue is presented simultaneously with (versus after) a relevant instructional cue. These findings show that consciously perceived, irrelevant instructional cues can activate inappropriate task objectives in working memory, resulting in a hijacking of the attentional network. Moreover, they reveal different time courses of hijacking effects in ventrolateral and dorsolateral prefrontal regions, consistent with models in which these regions make distinct contributions to cognitive control.
fMRI; attention; visual; auditory
Spatial selective attention is the mechanism that facilitates the selection of relevant information over irrelevant information in the visual field. The current study investigated whether foreknowledge of the presence or absence of distractors surrounding an impending target stimulus results in preparatory changes in visual cortex. We cued the location of the target and the presence or absence of distractors surrounding the target while changes in blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) signals were measured. In line with prior work, we found that top-down spatial attention resulted in an increased contralateral BOLD response, evoked by the cue throughout early visual cortex (areas V1, V2 and V3). In addition, cues indicating distractor presence evoked a substantial increase in the magnitude of the BOLD signal in visual area V3, but not in V2 or V1. This study shows that prior knowledge concerning the presence of a distractor results in enhanced attentional modulation of visual cortex, in visual areas where neuronal receptive fields are large enough to encompass both targets and distractors. We interpret these findings as evidence that top-down attentional control processes include active preparatory suppression mechanisms for irrelevant, distracting information in the visual scene.
When we detect conflicting irrelevant stimuli (e.g., nearby conversations), we often minimize distraction by increasing attention to relevant stimuli. However, dissociating the neural substrates of processes that detect conflict and processes that increase attention has proven exceptionally difficult. Using a novel cross-modal attentional cueing task in humans, we observed regional specialization for these processes in the cognitive division of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACCcd). Activity in a dorsal subregion was associated with increasing attention to relevant stimuli, correlated with behavioral measures of orienting attention to those stimuli, and resembled activity in dorsolateral prefrontal regions that are also thought to bias attention toward relevant stimuli. In contrast, activity in a rostral subregion was associated only with detecting response conflict caused by irrelevant stimuli. These findings support a 2-component model for minimizing distraction and speak to a longstanding debate over how the ACCcd contributes to cognitive control.
cognitive control; cross-modal; fMRI; response conflict; selective attention
When we detect conflicting irrelevant stimuli (e.g., nearby conversations), we often minimize distraction by increasing attention to relevant stimuli. However, dissociating the neural substrates of processes that detect conflict and processes that increase attention has proven exceptionally difficult. Using a novel cross-modal attentional cueing task in humans, we observed regional specialization for these processes in the cognitive division of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACCcd). Activity in a dorsal subregion was associated with increasing attention to relevant stimuli, correlated with behavioral measures of orienting attention to those stimuli, and resembled activity in dorsolateral prefrontal regions that are also thought to bias attention toward relevant stimuli. In contrast, activity in a rostral subregion was associated only with detecting response conflict caused by irrelevant stimuli. These findings support a two-component model for minimizing distraction and speak to a longstanding debate over how the ACCcd contributes to cognitive control.
cross-modal; cognitive control; fMRI; response conflict; selective attention
According to conventional neurobiological accounts of visual attention, attention serves to enhance extrastriate neuronal responses to a stimulus at one spatial location in the visual field. However, recent results from recordings in extrastriate cortex of monkeys suggest that any enhancing effect of attention is best understood in the context of competitive interactions among neurons representing all of the stimuli present in the visual field. These interactions can be biased in favour of behaviourally relevant stimuli as a result of many different processes, both spatial and non-spatial, and both bottom-up and top-down. The resolution of this competition results in the suppression of the neuronal representations of behaviourally irrelevant stimuli in extrastriate cortex. A main source of top-down influence may derive from neuronal systems underlying working memory.
The present research examined the hypothesis that cognitive processes are modulated differentially by trait and state negative affect (NA). Brain activation associated with trait and state NA was measured by fMRI during an attentional control task, the emotion-word Stroop. Performance on the task was disrupted only by state NA. Trait NA was associated with reduced activity in several regions, including a prefrontal area that has been shown to be involved in top-down, goal-directed attentional control. In contrast, state NA was associated with increased activity in several regions, including a prefrontal region that has been shown to be involved in stimulus-driven aspects of attentional control. Results suggest that NA has a significant impact on cognition, and that state and trait NA disrupt attentional control in distinct ways.
negative affect; attentional control; prefrontal cortex; emotion; fMRI
The role of attention in speech comprehension is not well understood. We used fMRI to study the neural correlates of auditory word, pseudoword, and nonspeech (spectrally-rotated speech) perception during a bimodal (auditory, visual) selective attention task. In three conditions, Attend Auditory (ignore visual), Ignore Auditory (attend visual), and Visual (no auditory stimulation), 28 subjects performed a one-back matching task in the assigned attended modality. The visual task, attending to rapidly presented Japanese characters, was designed to be highly demanding in order to prevent attention to the simultaneously presented auditory stimuli. Regardless of stimulus type, attention to the auditory channel enhanced activation by the auditory stimuli (Attend Auditory > Ignore Auditory) in bilateral posterior superior temporal regions and left inferior frontal cortex. Across attentional conditions, there were main effects of speech processing (word + pseudoword > rotated speech) in left orbitofrontal cortex and several posterior right hemisphere regions, though these areas also showed strong interactions with attention (larger speech effects in the Attend Auditory than in the Ignore Auditory condition) and no significant speech effects in the Ignore Auditory condition. Several other regions, including the postcentral gyri, left supramarginal gyrus, and temporal lobes bilaterally, showed similar interactions due to the presence of speech effects only in the Attend Auditory condition. Main effects of lexicality (word > pseudoword) were isolated to a small region of the left lateral prefrontal cortex. Examination of this region showed significant word > pseudoword activation only in the Attend Auditory condition. Several other brain regions, including left ventromedial frontal lobe, left dorsal prefrontal cortex, and left middle temporal gyrus, showed attention × lexicality interactions due to the presence of lexical activation only in the Attend Auditory condition. These results support a model in which neutral speech presented in an unattended sensory channel undergoes relatively little processing beyond the early perceptual level. Specifically, processing of phonetic and lexical-semantic information appears to be very limited in such circumstances, consistent with prior behavioral studies.
Our ability to process visual information is fundamentally limited. This leads to competition between sensory information that is relevant for top-down goals and sensory information that is perceptually salient, but task-irrelevant. The aim of the present study was to identify, from EEG recordings, pre-stimulus and pre-saccadic neural activity that could predict whether top-down or bottom-up processes would win the competition for attention on a trial-by-trial basis. We employed a visual search paradigm in which a lateralized low contrast target appeared alone, or with a low (i.e., non-salient) or high contrast (i.e., salient) distractor. Trials with a salient distractor were of primary interest due to the strong competition between top-down knowledge and bottom-up attentional capture. Our results demonstrated that 1) in the 1-sec pre-stimulus interval, frontal alpha (8–12 Hz) activity was higher on trials where the salient distractor captured attention and the first saccade (bottom-up win); and 2) there was a transient pre-saccadic increase in posterior-parietal alpha (7–8 Hz) activity on trials where the first saccade went to the target (top-down win). We propose that the high frontal alpha reflects a disengagement of attentional control whereas the transient posterior alpha time-locked to the saccade indicates sensory inhibition of the salient distractor and suppression of bottom-up oculomotor capture.