The role of top-down spatial attention in contingent attentional capture

Wanyi Huang, Yuling Su, Yanfen Zhen, Zhe Qu
Psychophysiology 2016, 53 (5): 650-62
It is well known that attentional capture by an irrelevant salient item is contingent on top-down feature selection, but whether attentional capture may be modulated by top-down spatial attention remains unclear. Here, we combined behavioral and ERP measurements to investigate the contribution of top-down spatial attention to attentional capture under modified spatial cueing paradigms. Each target stimulus was preceded by a peripheral circular cue array containing a spatially uninformative color singleton cue. We varied target sets but kept the cue array unchanged among different experimental conditions. When participants' task was to search for a colored letter in the target array that shared the same peripheral locations with the cue array, attentional capture by the peripheral color cue was reflected by both a behavioral spatial cueing effect and a cue-elicited N2pc component. When target arrays were presented more centrally, both the behavioral and N2pc effects were attenuated but still significant. The attenuated cue-elicited N2pc was found even when participants focused their attention on the fixed central location to identify a colored letter among an RSVP letter stream. By contrast, when participants were asked to identify an outlined or larger target, neither the behavioral spatial cueing effect nor the cue-elicited N2pc was observed, regardless of whether the target and cue arrays shared same locations or not. These results add to the evidence that attentional capture by salient stimuli is contingent upon feature-based task sets, and further indicate that top-down spatial attention is important but may not be necessary for contingent attentional capture.

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