Distractor suppression when attention fails: Behavioral evidence for a flexible selective attention mechanism

Despite consistent evidence showing that attention is a multifaceted mechanism that can operate at multiple levels of processing depending on the structure and demands of the task, investigations of the attentional blink phenomenon have consistently shown that the impairment in reporting the second of two targets typically occurs at a late, or post-perceptual, stage of processing. This suggests that the attentional blink phenomenon may represent the operation of a unique attentional mechanism that is not as flexible as other attentional mechanisms. To test whether the attentional blink is a fixed or flexible phenomenon, we manipulated first target task demands (i.e., difficulty) and measured the influence this had on processing a subsequently presented distractor and the second target. If the attentional blink represents a mechanism that is fixed and consistently fails at a single stage of processing, then manipulations of task difficulty should not affect distractor processing. However, if the attentional blink represents a more multifaceted and flexible mechanism, then task difficulty should modulate distractor processing. The results revealed that distractor processing during the AB was attenuated under high task difficulty. In addition, unlike previous studies, we failed to find a correlation between distractor processing and the severity of the attentional blink. Using a simulation, we demonstrate that the previously reported correlations may have been spurious and due to using variables that were not independent. Overall, the present results support the conclusion that the selectivity of attention during the AB is flexible and depends on the structure and demands of the task.

J. C. Elliott and B. Giesbrecht
PLoS One
Volume: 10
Number: 4
Date: April, 2015
ICB Affiliated Authors: Barry Giesbrecht