Academic journal article Perception and Psychophysics

Variation in Cue Duration Reveals Top-Down Modulation of Involuntary Orienting to Uninformative Symbolic Cues

Academic journal article Perception and Psychophysics

Variation in Cue Duration Reveals Top-Down Modulation of Involuntary Orienting to Uninformative Symbolic Cues

Article excerpt

This article reports three experiments in which the effects of cue duration on involuntary orienting to uninformative symbolic cues (arrows presented at fixation) were investigated. Experiment 1 showed that symbolic cues had less effect on involuntary orienting when they were presented for only 25 msec than when they were presented for 200 msec across a range of stimulus onset asynchronies. Experiment 2 suggested that the effect of cue duration on involuntary orienting was due primarily to top-down strategic factors, rather than to bottom-up stimulus factors, and Experiment 3 suggested that these strategic factors may involve differences in how the cue is processed. Altogether, the present findings are important because they emphasize the distinction between cue processing and the putative involuntary orienting that results from such processing in the symbolic-cuing paradigm. In so doing, the present results help resolve discrepant findings that have been reported across previous studies.

Contemporary research suggests that attention is organized into a number of interrelated processing networks that are widely distributed throughout the brain (Posner & Petersen, 1990). Because high-level visual processing is limited in capacity, one critical function of attention is to select a subset of available information in the visual field for further processing. Such selection is thought to be carried out by the spatial-orienting network, which directs focal attention to various spatial locations and/or objects present in the visual field. The orientation of attention has been extensively studied over the past 2 decades, using the spatial-cuing paradigm (Posner, 1980; Posner, Snyder, & Davidson, 1980). In this paradigm, spatial cues are used to direct attention to potential target locations, and both response time (RT) and accuracy have been measured to assess processing differences associated with attended and unattended stimuli.

In the present article, we address a recent controversy concerning a particular class of spatial cues that have been referred to as symbolic cues. Symbolic cues are stimuli that typically appear at fixation and refer to potential target locations indirectly, as for instance, when an arrow points to one of several potential target positions located in the visual periphery. Because these cues have the potential to influence processing of an ensuing target by directing attention from a central location to another, more peripheral location according to the symbolic meaning of the cue, they have also been called central, indirect, push, and endogenous cues. Symbolic cues can be contrasted with a more direct form of spatial cuing in which the cues appear at, or in close proximity to, potential target locations that are located away from central fixation in the peripheral visual field. In contrast to symbolic cues, direct cues do not require interpretation; rather, they have the potential to influence processing of an ensuing target by attracting attention directly to the location of the cue. For this reason, these cues have also been called peripheral, direct, pull, and exogenous cues.

Of particular interest in the present article is the question of whether a particular kind of symbolic cue-an arrow presented at fixation-can elicit involuntary shifts of attention within the spatial-cuing paradigm. Attention is said to be controlled in an involuntary fashion when it is allocated independently of the current goals and intentions of an observer, which is typically achieved in the spatialcuing paradigm by presenting cues that predict the location of the target only by chance (for a more detailed discussion of this issue, see Bacon & Egeth, 1994; Folk, Remington, & Johnston, 1992; Gibson & Kelsey, 1998; Theeuwes, 1994; Yantis, 1993). For the past 20 years, the established view has been that symbolic cues are not capable of eliciting involuntary shifts of attention. The empirical basis for this conclusion can be traced to the seminal research of Jonides (1981; see especially Experiment 2), which suggested that observers could intentionally suppress orienting in response to an uninformative arrow cue presented at fixation, but not in response to an uninformative arrow cue presented in the visual periphery. …

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