Academic journal article Perception and Psychophysics

Symbolic Control of Attention: Tracking Its Temporal Dynamics

Academic journal article Perception and Psychophysics

Symbolic Control of Attention: Tracking Its Temporal Dynamics

Article excerpt

Three experiments examined the temporal dynamics of the impact of symbols with task-irrelevant spatial meanings on attentional control. In Experiments 1 and 2, participants were color-cued to report the first letter they saw in the left or right of two parallel letter streams. The cue appeared in the shape of an arrow pointing to the target stream (compatible) or to the other stream (incompatible). Incompatible arrows delayed letter selection; that is, participants reported later-appearing letters and made more errors. In Experiment 3, the target stream was cued in advance, and yet, incompatible symbols delayed target selection. These findings suggest that the irrelevant meaning of symbolic stimuli can still penetrate and bias attentional top-down control, an observation that challenges available control theories.

Human communication is based on the exchange of symbols in order to produce intended modifications of an addressee's cognitive state and behavior (Grice, 1969). Symbols can thus be considered an important means to "direct one another's attention to particular aspects of their shared world" (Tomasello & Call, 1997, p. 408). Indeed, there is ample evidence that pointing gestures, directional signs (such as arrows), and even directional words (such as "left" and "right") direct people's attention toward the location they point or refer to (e.g., Hommel, Pratt, Colzato, & Godijn, 2001; Langton & Bruce, 2000). Interestingly, this is true not only for the rather trivial case when such symbols are functional and meaningful for the current task (e.g., when searching for directions), but also when their meaning is entirely irrelevant and uninformative.

In the context of communication, this makes a lot of sense, because a message to a receiver should communicate its meaning even if it does not fully meet all aspects of the receiver's current activities and goals-otherwise, e-mail reminders simply would not work. However, attentional approaches have often overlooked the automatic attentional impact of directional symbols. Indeed, common wisdom since the pioneering work of Posner (1980) and Jonides (1980, 1981) has taken it for granted that so-called peripheral or exogenous spatial cues (cues that appear at the same location as the cued event) attract attention in an automatic fashion, whereas central or endogenous cues (cues that appear at a spatially neutral location but indicate the location of the cued event) require the observer to actively translate the information provided by the cue into a voluntary shift of the attentional focus. Findings suggesting that stimuli can not only attract attention (to their location) but also direct attention (to other locations) undermine the intuitive distinction between exogenous and endogenous cues, because it seems that spatially meaningful symbols can take over direct attentional control, especially if they are deictic in nature (Gibson & Kingstone, 2006). More concretely, activating the representations of spatial symbols seems to induce a top-down bias of attention toward selecting stimuli that share the feature indicated by the symbol-such as a particular location (Pratt & Hommel, 2003; see Figure 1).

The present study aimed at exploring the temporal dynamics of symbolic control. Temporal characteristics of cuing are commonly investigated by manipulating the interval between cue presentation and target presentation. Previous manipulations of this sort have shown that, if the interval is very short, cuing effects are small or absent, presumably because it takes some time for the cue to be encoded (see, e.g., Müller & Rabbitt, 1989) and for its impact on control processes to unfold (Pratt & Hommel, 2003). In contrast, once a robust cuing effect is obtained, extending the interval has no effect (Hommel et al., 2001; Pratt & Hommel, 2003). Interestingly, this temporal pattern is different from what has been reported for peripheral cues (e. …

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