Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Attention alters appearance

An interesting article by Störmer et al. addresses the neural basis of our phenomenological experience, probing a central question in perception: Does attention alter our subjective experience of the world? The authors found that attention increases the perceived contrast of visual stimuli (sine wave gratings) by boosting early sensory processing in the visual cortex. Here are some slightly edited clips from a review by Carrasco in the same journal:
Voluntary attention refers to the sustained, endogenous directing of attention to a location in the visual field. Involuntary attention is the transient, exogenous capture of attention to a location, brought about by a sudden change in the environment. (Visual attention can be covertly deployed, without eye movements. We use covert attention routinely in everyday situations, when we search for objects, drive a car, cross the street, play sports, or dance, as well as in social situations—for example, when moving the eyes would provide a cue to intentions that we wish to conceal.)... Störmer et al. modified an existing experimental paradigm in two insightful and exciting ways to investigate the effect of attention on appearance with concurrent electrophysiological and behavioral measures. First, to eliminate any possibility of intramodal sensory interactions between the cue and the stimulus, they used a lateralized auditory cue rather than a visual cue. This modification enabled the authors to study the effects of cross-modal attention on appearance. Second, they recorded evoked electrical fields on the scalp—event-related potentials (ERPs)—from visual cortex in response to the cued target as observers judged the relative contrast of visual stimuli presented to the right and left visual fields. ERPs are electrophysiological responses that arise during sensory, cognitive, and motor processing, which provide precise information about the time course of information processing. In this study, they help pinpoint the level of processing at which attention exerts its effect on judgments of contrast appearance. Short-latency evoked responses, P1 (90–150 ms) and N1 (180–240 ms), reflect early sensory processes that can be modulated by selective attention; longer-latency components (250–500 ms) arise from multiple cortical generators and reflect postperceptual processing, including decision-making, working memory encoding, and response selection.

Here is the abstract from the article:
The question of whether attention makes sensory impressions appear more intense has been a matter of debate for over a century. Recent psychophysical studies have reported that attention increases apparent contrast of visual stimuli, but the issue continues to be debated. We obtained converging neurophysiological evidence from human observers as they judged the relative contrast of visual stimuli presented to the left and right visual fields following a lateralized auditory cue. Cross-modal cueing of attention boosted the apparent contrast of the visual target in association with an enlarged neural response in the contralateral visual cortex that began within 100 ms after target onset. The magnitude of the enhanced neural response was positively correlated with perceptual reports of the cued target being higher in contrast. The results suggest that attention increases the perceived contrast of visual stimuli by boosting early sensory processing in the visual cortex.

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