Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Combining Attention: A Novel Way of Conceptualizing the Links between Attention, Sensory Processing, and Behavior

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Combining Attention: A Novel Way of Conceptualizing the Links between Attention, Sensory Processing, and Behavior

Article excerpt

Published online: 8 August 2014

© The Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract Many everyday behaviors appear to require both the interpretation of incoming sensory information and the maintenance of a current task goal. This intuitive notion suggests that combining attentional control processes might reflect a fundamentally novel way in which attention supports complex behavior. Using an established paradigm, here we show that joint recruitment in multiple attention control systems leads to corresponding combined increases in behavior and underlying sensory processing of attended targets. Moreover, our data also revealed that the nature of the combined effect depends on a flexible allocation of attentional resources to individual component processes, which change dynamically as a function of task demands. Together, these data provide a new conceptual framework for characterizing the role of attention in behavior and suggest important extensions to the prevailing theories of attention.

Keywords Attention . Complex behavior

Introduction

Consider the following example. After failing to find the way to your hotel in a foreign city, you ask a passerby for directions; they point to the map you are holding, and you follow their finger tracing the correct route. Successful completion of this task depends on the involvement of two attentional mechanisms, one that supports behavior by interpreting behaviorally relevant sensory information (i.e., automated attention elicited by the finger point's direction; Ristic & Kingstone 2012; Ristic et al. 2012) and another that supports behavior by maintaining the current goal (i.e., endogenous attention engaged by the goal of getting to the hotel; Jonides 1981). Intuitively then, complex behaviors may depend on the ability of attentional control systems to combine the meaning of the sensory cues with the present goals of an individual.

This idea dovetails with a recent proposal that, in addition to the two well-known modes of attentional control (i.e., exogenous orienting elicited by sensory properties of the cues and endogenous attention elicited by current goals; Jonides 1981; Posner 1980), attention could also be engaged independently by stimuli that carry different types of selection history (Anderson et al. 2011b; Awh et al. 2012). In this framework, attentional control systems are seen as operating in a coordinated independent fashion, supporting the notion that attentional control systems may combine. However, while this prediction holds for situations in which different types of sensory information are used to engage each attention system independently, it is at present unclear if a single cue, whose sensory properties afford processing in multiple attention control systems, would also have an ability to engage attentional systems in a combined manner. Stimuli that are relevant for behavior, like common symbols, might be especially good candidates due to their capacity to elicit activity in the control systems engaged by the cue's typical meaning (i.e., automated attention) and those that support explicit goal-directed behaviors (i.e., endogenous attention).

The first aim of this study was to test whether multiple attention control systems combine when they are engaged jointly by a single behaviorally relevant cue. In this effort, we measured the effects of automated and endogenous attention on behavior and target processing when they were engaged in isolation relative to when they were engaged in combination. To test this first aim, we capitalized on data showing that, when elicited in isolation, both automated and endogenous attention result in facilitation of response times and lead to increased sensory processing of attended targets. While automated attention facilitates behavior (Ristic & Kingstone 2012; Ristic et al. 2012) and underlying sensory processing of target events (Eimer 1997; Tipper et al. 2008) by directing attention in accordance with overlearned associations between behaviorally relevant stimuli and the events in the environment, endogenous attention facilitates behavior and sensory processing by directing attention in accordance with internal goals (e. …

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