The Role of Inhibition in Avoiding Distraction by Salient Stimuli

Trends Cogn Sci. 2018 Jan;22(1):79-92. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2017.11.001. Epub 2017 Nov 27.


Researchers have long debated whether salient stimuli can involuntarily 'capture' visual attention. We review here evidence for a recently discovered inhibitory mechanism that may help to resolve this debate. This evidence suggests that salient stimuli naturally attempt to capture attention, but capture can be avoided if the salient stimulus is suppressed before it captures attention. Importantly, the suppression process can be more or less effective as a result of changing task demands or lapses in cognitive control. Converging evidence for the existence of this suppression mechanism comes from multiple sources, including psychophysics, eye-tracking, and event-related potentials (ERPs). We conclude that the evidence for suppression is strong, but future research will need to explore the nature and limits of this mechanism.

Keywords: attention capture; inhibition; suppression; visual attention.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Attention* / physiology
  • Brain / physiology
  • Humans
  • Inhibition, Psychological*
  • Visual Perception* / physiology