Tracking target and distractor processing in fixed-feature visual search: evidence from human electrophysiology

Ali Jannati, John M Gaspar, John J McDonald
Journal of Experimental Psychology. Human Perception and Performance 2013, 39 (6): 1713-30
Salient distractors delay visual search for less salient targets in additional-singleton tasks, even when the features of the stimuli are fixed across trials. According to the salience-driven selection hypothesis, this delay is due to an initial attentional deployment to the distractor. Recent event-related potential (ERP) studies found no evidence for salience-driven selection in fixed-feature search, but the methods employed were not optimized to isolate distractor ERP components such as the N2pc and distractor positivity (PD; indices of selection and suppression, respectively). Here, we isolated target and distractor ERPs in two fixed-feature search experiments. Participants searched for a shape singleton in the presence of a more-salient color singleton (Experiment 1) or for a color singleton in the presence of a less-salient shape singleton (Experiment 2). The salient distractor did not elicit an N2pc, but it did elicit a PD on fast-response trials. Furthermore, distractors had no effect on the timing of the target N2pc. These results indicate that (a) the distractor was prevented from engaging the attentional mechanism associated with N2pc, (b) the distractor did not interrupt the deployment of attention to the target, and (c) competition for attention can be resolved by suppressing locations of irrelevant items on a salience-based priority map.

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