Capture versus suppression of attention by salient singletons: electrophysiological evidence for an automatic attend-to-me signal

Atten Percept Psychophys. 2010 Aug;72(6):1455-70. doi: 10.3758/APP.72.6.1455.


There is considerable controversy about whether salient singletons capture attention in a bottom-up fashion, irrespective of top-down control settings. One possibility is that salient singletons always generate an attention capture signal, but this signal can be actively suppressed to avoid capture. In the present study, we investigated this issue by using event-related potential recordings, focusing on N2pc (N2-posterior-contralateral; a measure of attentional deployment) and Pd (distractor positivity; a measure of attentional suppression). Participants searched for a specific letter within one of two regions, and irrelevant color singletons were sometimes present. We found that the irrelevant singletons did not elicit N2pc but instead elicited Pd; this occurred equally within the attended and unattended regions. These findings suggest that salient singletons may automatically produce an attend-to-me signal, irrespective of top-down control settings, but this signal can be overridden by an active suppression process to prevent the actual capture of attention.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Color Perception / physiology*
  • Cues
  • Discrimination, Psychological / physiology*
  • Dominance, Cerebral / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography*
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Occipital Lobe / physiology*
  • Orientation / physiology
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Signal Processing, Computer-Assisted*
  • Size Perception / physiology
  • Visual Fields / physiology
  • Young Adult