fMRI correlates of object-based attentional facilitation vs. suppression of irrelevant stimuli, dependent on global grouping and endogenous cueing

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Freeman, Elliot D. ; Macaluso, Emiliano ; Rees, Geraint ; Driver, Jon (2014)
  • Publisher: Frontiers Media S.A.
  • Journal: Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, volume 8 (issn: 1662-5145, eissn: 1662-5145)
  • Related identifiers: doi: 10.3389/fnint.2014.00012, pmc: PMC3918649
  • Subject: attentional modulation, coherent motion, functional imaging, object-based attention, perceptual grouping, visual cortex | RC0321 | object-based attention | coherent motion | visual cortex | Neuroscience | Original Research Article | perceptual grouping | attentional modulation | functional imaging

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.
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