Selective attention without a neocortex

Cortex. 2018 May;102:161-175. doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2017.08.026. Epub 2017 Sep 1.


Selective attention refers to the ability to restrict neural processing and behavioral responses to a relevant subset of available stimuli, while simultaneously excluding other valid stimuli from consideration. In primates and other mammals, descriptions of this ability typically emphasize the neural processing that takes place in the cerebral neocortex. However, non-mammals such as birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, which completely lack a neocortex, also have the ability to selectively attend. In this article, we survey the behavioral evidence for selective attention in non-mammals, and review the midbrain and forebrain structures that are responsible. The ancestral forms of selective attention are presumably selective orienting behaviors, such as prey-catching and predator avoidance. These behaviors depend critically on a set of subcortical structures, including the optic tectum (OT), thalamus and striatum, that are highly conserved across vertebrate evolution. In contrast, the contributions of different pallial regions in the forebrain to selective attention have been subject to more substantial changes and reorganization. This evolutionary perspective makes plain that selective attention is not a function achieved de novo with the emergence of the neocortex, but instead is implemented by circuits accrued and modified over hundreds of millions of years, beginning well before the forebrain contained a neocortex. Determining how older subcortical circuits interact with the more recently evolved components in the neocortex will likely be crucial for understanding the complex properties of selective attention in primates and other mammals, and for identifying the etiology of attention disorders.

Keywords: Attention; Evolution; Neocortex; Optic tectum; Striatum; Thalamus.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Humans
  • Neocortex / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Orientation / physiology*
  • Superior Colliculi / physiology*
  • Thalamus / physiology*