Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Sustaining Visual Attention in the Face of Distraction: A Novel Gradual-Onset Continuous Performance Task

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Sustaining Visual Attention in the Face of Distraction: A Novel Gradual-Onset Continuous Performance Task

Article excerpt

Published online: 9 January 2013

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC (outside the USA) 2013

Abstract Sustained attention is a fundamental aspect of human cognition and has been widely studied in applied and clinical contexts. Despite a growing understanding of how attention varies throughout task performance, moment-to-moment fluctuations are often difficult to assess. In order to better characterize fluctuations in sustained visual attention, in the present study we employed a novel continuous performance task (CPT), the gradual-onset CPT (gradCPT). In the gradCPT, a central face stimulus gradually transitions between individuals at a constant rate (1,200 ms), and participants are instructed to respond to each male face but not to a rare target female face. In the distractor-present version, the background distractors consist of scene images, and in the distractor-absent condition, of phase-scrambled scene images. The results confirmed that the gradCPT taxes sustained attention, as vigilance decrements were observed over the task's 12-min duration: Participants made more commission errors and showed increasingly variable response latencies (RTs) over time. Participants' attentional states also fluctuated from moment to moment, with periods of higher RT variability being associated with increased likelihood of errors and greater speed-accuracy trade-offs. In addition, task performance was related to self-reported mindfulness and the propensity for attention lapses in everyday life. The gradCPT is a useful tool for studying both low- and high-frequency fluctuations in sustained visual attention and is sensitive to individual differences in attentional ability.

Keywords Sustained attention · Attentional fluctuations · Inhibition · Vigilance


The ability to sustain attention over time is critical for successful performance in a variety of everyday activities. Maintaining focus on task goals is effortful, however, and in reality our attention fluctuates; sometimes we are on task, while other times we stray off because of boredom, fatigue, or distraction. Although we are all susceptible to occasional failures of sustained attention, the ability to remain focused varies widely from person to person and is related to other cognitive abilities and personality differences, as well as to brain structure and neurological health (e.g., Carrière, Cheyne, & Smilek, 2008; Fukuda & Vogel, 2009; Kanai, Dong, Bahrami, & Rees, 2011; Robertson, Manly, Andrade, Baddeley, & Yiend, 1997; Westlye, Grydeland, Walhovd, & Fjell, 2011). In the present study, we aimed to better characterize three important aspects of sustained attention: declines in performance over time (i.e., vigilance decrements), higher-frequency fluctuations in performance (e.g., trial-to-trial changes in reaction times [RTs]), and individual differences in attentional abilities.

Studies of vigilance

Vigilance, the ability to sustain attentional focus and remain alert to stimuli over time (Warm, Parasuraman, & Matthews, 2008), was first studied during World War II to investigate why radar operators were more likely to miss rare events near the ends of their shifts. In the original vigilance task, the Mackworth clock test, observers monitored a pointer moving in regular increments around a blank clock for up to 2 h and were instructed to respond when they saw an infrequent double jump in the pointer's movement (Mackworth, 1948). Detection accuracy declined after 30 min of watch, and later vigilance studies generally found decrements within the first 15 min of performance, or even the first 5 min under demanding task conditions (Nuechterlein, Parasuraman, & Jiang, 1983; Temple et al., 2000). Continuous performance tasks (CPTs) are another group of paradigms commonly used to study vigilance (Riccio, Reynolds, & Lowe, 2001; Rosvold, Mirsky, Sarason, Bransome, & Beck, 1956), especially in clinical populations. …

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