Stay tuned: What is special about not shifting attention?

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Background: When studying attentional orienting processes, brain activity elicited by symbolic cue is usually compared to a neutral condition in which no information is provided about the upcoming target location. It is generally assumed that when a neutral cue is provided, participants do not shift their attention. The present study sought to validate this assumption. We further investigated whether anticipated task demands had an impact on brain activity related to processing symbolic cues. Methodology/Principal Findings: Two experiments were conducted, during which event-related potentials were elicited by symbolic cues that instructed participants to shift their attention to a particular location on a computer screen. In Experiment 1, attention shift-inducing cues were compared to non-informative cues, while in both conditions participants were required to detect target stimuli that were subsequently presented at peripheral locations. In Experiment 2, a non-ambiguous "stay-central" cue that explicitly required participants not to shift their attention was used instead. In the latter case, target stimuli that followed a stay-central cue were also presented at a central location. Both experiments revealed enlarged early latency contralateral ERP components to shift-inducing cues compared to those elicited by either non-informative (exp. 1) or stay-central cues (exp. 2). In addition, cueing effects were modulated by the anticipated difficulty of the upcoming target, particularly so in Experiment 2. A positive difference, predominantly over the posterior contralateral scalp areas, could be observed for stay-central cues, especially for those predicting that the upcoming target would be easy. This effect was not present for non-informative cues. Conclusions/Significance: We interpret our result in terms of a more rapid engagement of attention occurring in the presence of a more predictive instruction (i.e. stay-central easy target). Our results indicate that the human brain is capable of very rapidly identifying the difference between different types of instructions. © 2011 Talsma et al.




Talsma, D., Sikkens, J. J., & Theeuwes, J. (2011). Stay tuned: What is special about not shifting attention? PLoS ONE, 6(3).

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