Word frequency and the attentional blink: the effects of target difficulty on retrieval and consolidation processes

PLoS One. 2013 Sep 3;8(9):e73415. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0073415. eCollection 2013.


Background: When a second target (T2) is presented in close succession of a first target (T1) within a stream of non-targets, people often fail to detect T2-a deficit known as the attentional blink (AB). Two types of theories can be distinguished that have tried to account for this phenomenon. Whereas attentional-control theories suggest that protection of consolidation processes induces the AB, limited-resource theories claim that the AB is caused by a lack of resources. According to the latter type of theories, increasing difficulty of one or both targets should increase the magnitude of the AB. Similarly, attentional-control theories predict that a difficult T1 increases the AB due to prolonged processing. However, the prediction for T2 is not as straightforward. Prolonged processing of T2 could cause conflicts and increase the AB. However, if consolidation of T2 is postponed without loss of identity, the AB might be attenuated.

Methodology/principal findings: Participants performed an AB task that consisted of a stream of distractor non-words and two target words. Difficulty of T1 and T2 was manipulated by varying word-frequency. Overall performance for high-frequency words was better than for low-frequency words. When T1 was highly frequent, the AB was reduced. The opposite effect was found for T2. When T2 was highly frequent, performance during the AB period was relatively worse than for a low-frequency T2. A threaded-cognition model of the AB was presented that simulated the observed pattern of behavior by taking changes in the time-course of retrieval and consolidation processes into account. Our results were replicated in a subsequent ERP study.

Conclusions/significance: The finding that a difficult low-frequency T2 reduces the magnitude of the AB is at odds with limited-resource accounts of the AB. However, it was successfully accounted for by the threaded-cognition model, thus providing an explanation in terms of attentional control.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Attentional Blink*
  • Cognition*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Young Adult

Grant support

This research was supported by a grant of the Behavioural and Cognitive Neurosciences (BCN) Research School. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.