Cross-modal distractors modulate oscillatory alpha power: the neural basis of impaired task performance

Psychophysiology. 2016 Nov;53(11):1651-1659. doi: 10.1111/psyp.12733. Epub 2016 Jul 29.


Unexpected novel sounds capture one's attention, even when irrelevant to the task pursued (e.g., playing video game). This often comes at a cost to the task (e.g., slower responding). The neural basis for this behavioral distraction effect is not well understood and is subject of this study. Our approach was motivated by findings from cuing paradigms suggesting a link between modulations in oscillatory activity and voluntary attention shifts. The current study tested whether oscillatory activity is also modulated by a task-irrelevant auditory distractor, reflecting a neural signature of an involuntary shift of attention and accounting for the impaired task performance. We reanalyzed magnetoencephalographic data collected via an auditory-visual distraction paradigm in which a task-relevant visual stimulus was preceded by a task-irrelevant sound on each trial. In 87.5% this was a regular sound (Standard); in 12.5% this was a novel sound (Distractor). We compared nonphase locked oscillatory activity in a time window prior to the visual target as a function of the experimental manipulation (Distractor, Standard). We found low power in the pretarget time window for Distractors compared to Standards in the alpha and beta frequency bands. Importantly, individual alpha power correlated with response speed on a trial-by-trial basis for the Distractor only. Sources were localized to the occipital cortex, and also to the parietal and supratemporal cortices. These findings support our hypothesis that the distractor-related alpha power modulation indexes an involuntary shift of attention which accounts for the impaired task performance.

Keywords: Alpha oscillations; Cross-modal distraction; Involuntary attention; Magnetoencephalography (MEG).

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Adult
  • Alpha Rhythm*
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Beta Rhythm
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetoencephalography
  • Male
  • Occipital Lobe
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Psychomotor Performance*
  • Reaction Time
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult