Effects of attentional load on early visual processing depend on stimulus timing.
ABSTRACT: A growing number of studies suggest that early visual processing is not only affected by low-level perceptual attributes but also by higher order cognitive factors such as attention or emotion. Using high-density electroencephalography, we recently demonstrated that attentional load of a task at fixation reduces the response of primary visual cortex to irrelevant peripheral stimuli, as indexed by the C1 component. In the latter study, peripheral stimuli were always presented during intervals without task-relevant stimuli. Here, we use a similar paradigm but present central task stimuli and irrelevant peripheral stimuli simultaneously while keeping all other stimulus characteristics constant. Results show that rather than to suppress responses to peripheral stimulation, high attentional load elicits higher C1 amplitudes under these conditions. These findings suggest that stimulus timing can profoundly alter the effects of attentional load on the earliest stages of processing in human visual cortex.
Project description:Visual neuroscience has long sought to determine the extent to which stimulus-evoked activity in visual cortex depends on attention and awareness. Some influential theories of consciousness maintain that the allocation of attention is restricted to conscious representations [1, 2]. However, in the load theory of attention , competition between task-relevant and task-irrelevant stimuli for limited-capacity attention does not depend on conscious perception of the irrelevant stimuli. The critical test is whether the level of attentional load in a relevant task would determine unconscious neural processing of invisible stimuli. Human participants were scanned with high-field fMRI while they performed a foveal task of low or high attentional load. Irrelevant, invisible monocular stimuli were simultaneously presented peripherally and were continuously suppressed by a flashing mask in the other eye . Attentional load in the foveal task strongly modulated retinotopic activity evoked in primary visual cortex (V1) by the invisible stimuli. Contrary to traditional views [1, 2, 5, 6], we found that availability of attentional capacity determines neural representations related to unconscious processing of continuously suppressed stimuli in human primary visual cortex. Spillover of attention to cortical representations of invisible stimuli (under low load) cannot be a sufficient condition for their awareness.
Project description:When a behaviorally relevant stimulus has been previously associated with reward, behavioral responses are faster and more accurate compared to equally relevant but less valuable stimuli. Conversely, task-irrelevant stimuli that were previously associated with a high reward can capture attention and distract processing away from relevant stimuli (e.g., seeing a chocolate bar in the pantry when you are looking for a nice, healthy apple). Although increasing the value of task-relevant stimuli systematically up-regulates neural responses in early visual cortex to facilitate information processing, it is not clear whether the value of task-irrelevant distractors influences behavior via competition in early visual cortex or via competition at later stages of decision-making and response selection. Here, we measured functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in human visual cortex while subjects performed a value-based learning task, and we applied a multivariate inverted encoding model (IEM) to assess the fidelity of distractor representations in early visual cortex. We found that the fidelity of neural representations related to task-irrelevant distractors increased when the distractors were previously associated with a high reward. This finding suggests that value-driven attentional capture begins with sensory modulations of distractor representations in early areas of visual cortex.
Project description:Theories of object-based attention often make two assumptions: that attentional resources are facilitatory, and that they spread automatically within grouped objects. Consistent with this, ignored visual stimuli can be easier to process, or more distracting, when perceptually grouped with an attended target stimulus. But in past studies, the ignored stimuli often shared potentially relevant features or locations with the target. In this fMRI study, we measured the effects of attention and grouping on Blood Oxygenation Level Dependent (BOLD) responses in the human brain to entirely task-irrelevant events. Two checkerboards were displayed each in opposite hemifields, while participants responded to check-size changes in one pre-cued hemifield, which varied between blocks. Grouping (or segmentation) between hemifields was manipulated between blocks, using common (vs. distinct) motion cues. Task-irrelevant transient events were introduced by randomly changing the color of either checkerboard, attended or ignored, at unpredictable intervals. The above assumptions predict heightened BOLD signals for irrelevant events in attended vs. ignored hemifields for ungrouped contexts, but less such attentional modulation under grouping, due to automatic spreading of facilitation across hemifields. We found the opposite pattern, in primary visual cortex. For ungrouped stimuli, BOLD signals associated with task-irrelevant changes were lower, not higher, in the attended vs. ignored hemifield; furthermore, attentional modulation was not reduced but actually inverted under grouping, with higher signals for events in the attended vs. ignored hemifield. These results challenge two popular assumptions underlying object-based attention. We consider a broader biased-competition framework: task-irrelevant stimuli are suppressed according to how strongly they compete with task-relevant stimuli, with intensified competition when the irrelevant features or locations comprise the same object.
Project description:Attending to a stimulus is known to enhance the neural responses to that stimulus. Recent experiments on visual attention have shown that this modulation can have object-based characteristics, such that, when certain parts of a visual object are attended, other parts automatically also receive enhanced processing. Here, we investigated whether visual attention can modulate neural responses to other components of a multisensory object defined by synchronous, but spatially disparate, auditory and visual stimuli. The audiovisual integration of such multisensory stimuli typically leads to mislocalization of the sound toward the visual stimulus (ventriloquism illusion). Using event-related potentials and functional MRI, we found that the brain's response to task-irrelevant sounds occurring synchronously with a visual stimulus from a different location was larger when that accompanying visual stimulus was attended versus unattended. The event-related potential effect consisted of sustained, frontally distributed, brain activity that emerged relatively late in processing, an effect resembling attention-related enhancements seen at earlier latencies during intramodal auditory attention. Moreover, the functional MRI data confirmed that the effect included specific enhancement of activity in auditory cortex. These findings indicate that attention to one sensory modality can spread to encompass simultaneous signals from another modality, even when they are task-irrelevant and from a different location. This cross-modal attentional spread appears to reflect an object-based, late selection process wherein spatially discrepant auditory stimulation is grouped with synchronous attended visual input into a multisensory object, resulting in the auditory information being pulled into the attentional spotlight and bestowed with enhanced processing.
Project description: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 RT 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 because of 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.
Project description:Goal-directed and stimulus-driven factors determine attentional priority through a well defined dorsal frontal-parietal and ventral temporal-parietal network of brain regions, respectively. Recent evidence demonstrates that reward-related stimuli also have high attentional priority, independent of their physical salience and goal-relevance. The neural mechanisms underlying such value-driven attentional control are unknown. Using human functional magnetic resonance imaging, we demonstrate that the tail of the caudate nucleus and extrastriate visual cortex respond preferentially to task-irrelevant but previously reward-associated objects, providing an attentional priority signal that is sensitive to reward history. The caudate tail has not been implicated in the control of goal-directed or stimulus-driven attention, but is well suited to mediate the value-driven control of attention. Our findings reveal the neural basis of value-based attentional priority.
Project description: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.
Project description:In order to behave adaptively, attention can be directed in space either voluntarily (i.e., endogenously) according to strategic goals, or involuntarily (i.e., exogenously) through reflexive capture by salient or novel events. The emotional or motivational value of stimuli can also strongly influence attentional orienting. However, little is known about how reward-related effects compete or interact with endogenous and exogenous attention mechanisms, particularly outside of awareness. Here we developed a visual search paradigm to study subliminal value-based attentional orienting. We systematically manipulated goal-directed or stimulus-driven attentional orienting and examined whether an irrelevant, but previously rewarded stimulus could compete with both types of spatial attention during search. Critically, reward was learned without conscious awareness in a preceding phase where one among several visual symbols was consistently paired with a subliminal monetary reinforcement cue. Our results demonstrated that symbols previously associated with a monetary reward received higher attentional priority in the subsequent visual search task, even though these stimuli and reward were no longer task-relevant, and despite reward being unconsciously acquired. Thus, motivational processes operating independent of conscious awareness may provide powerful influences on mechanisms of attentional selection, which could mitigate both stimulus-driven and goal-directed shifts of attention.
Project description:Previous research has shown that attentional selection is affected by reward contingencies: previously selected and rewarded stimuli continue to capture attention even if the reward contingencies are no longer in place. In the current study, we investigated whether attentional selection also is affected by stimuli that merely signal the magnitude of reward available on a given trial but, crucially, have never had instrumental value. In a series of experiments, we show that a stimulus signaling high reward availability captures attention even when that stimulus is and was never physically salient or part of the task set, and selecting it is harmful for obtaining reward. Our results suggest that irrelevant reward-signaling stimuli capture attention, because participants have learned about the relationship between the stimulus and reward. Importantly, we only observed learning after initial attentional prioritization of the reward signaling stimulus. We conclude that nonsalient, task-irrelevant but reward-signaling stimuli can affect attentional selection above and beyond top-down or bottom-up attentional control, however, only after such stimuli were initially prioritized for selection.
Project description:Brain regions beyond visual cortex are thought to be responsible for attention-related modulation of visual processing [1, 2], but most evidence is indirect. Here, we applied functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), including retinotopic mapping of visual areas, to patients with focal right-parietal lesions and left spatial neglect [3, 4]. When attentional load at fixation was minimal, retinotopic areas in right visual cortex showed preserved responses to task-irrelevant checkerboards in the contralateral left hemifield, analogously to left visual cortex for right-hemifield checkerboards, indicating a "symmetric" pattern in both hemispheres with respect to contralateral stimulation under these conditions. But when attentional load at fixation was increased, a functional asymmetry emerged for visual cortex, with contralateral responses in right visual areas being pathologically reduced (even eliminated for right V4/TEO), whereas left visual areas showed no such reduction in their contralateral response. These results reveal attention-dependent abnormalities in visual cortex after lesions in distant (parietal) regions. This may explain otherwise puzzling aspects of neglect [5, 6], as confirmed here by additional behavioral testing.