Combined Electrophysiological and Behavioral Evidence for the Suppression of Salient Distractors

J Cogn Neurosci. 2018 Sep;30(9):1265-1280. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_01279. Epub 2018 May 15.


Researchers have long debated how salient-but-irrelevant features guide visual attention. Pure stimulus-driven theories claim that salient stimuli automatically capture attention irrespective of goals, whereas pure goal-driven theories propose that an individual's attentional control settings determine whether salient stimuli capture attention. However, recent studies have suggested a hybrid model in which salient stimuli attract visual attention but can be actively suppressed by top-down attentional mechanisms. Support for this hybrid model has primarily come from ERP studies demonstrating that salient stimuli, which fail to capture attention, also elicit a distractor positivity (PD) component, a putative neural index of suppression. Other support comes from a handful of behavioral studies showing that processing at the salient locations is inhibited compared with other locations. The current study was designed to link the behavioral and neural evidence by combining ERP recordings with an experimental paradigm that provides a behavioral measure of suppression. We found that, when a salient distractor item elicited the PD component, processing at the location of this distractor was suppressed below baseline levels. Furthermore, the magnitude of behavioral suppression and the magnitude of the PD component covaried across participants. These findings provide a crucial connection between the behavioral and neural measures of suppression, which opens the door to using the PD component to assess the timing and neural substrates of the behaviorally observed suppression.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Visual Perception / physiology
  • Young Adult