Spotting rare items makes the brain "blink" harder: Evidence from pupillometry

Atten Percept Psychophys. 2019 Nov;81(8):2635-2647. doi: 10.3758/s13414-019-01777-6.


In many visual search tasks (e.g., cancer screening, airport baggage inspections), the most serious search targets occur infrequently. As an ironic side effect, when observers finally encounter important objects (e.g., a weapon in baggage), they often fail to notice them, a phenomenon known as the low-prevalence effect (LPE). Although many studies have investigated LPE search errors, we investigated the attentional consequences of successful rare target detection. Using an attentional blink paradigm, we manipulated how often observers encountered the first serial target (T1), then measured its effects on their ability to detect a following target (T2). Across two experiments, we show that the LPE is more than just an inflated miss rate: When observers successfully detected rare targets, they were less likely to spot subsequent targets. Using pupillometry to index locus-coeruleus (LC) mediated attentional engagement, Experiment 2 confirmed that an LC refractory period mediates the attentional blink (`Nieuwenhuis, Gilzenrat, Holmes, & Cohen, 2005, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 134[3], 291-307), and that these effects emerge relatively quickly following T1 onset. Moreover, in both behavioral and pupil analyses, we found that detecting low-prevalence targets exacerbates the LC refractory period. Consequences for theories of the LPE are discussed.

Keywords: Attentional blink; Locus coeruleus; Low-prevalence effect; Pupillometry.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attentional Blink / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology*
  • Psychological Theory*
  • Pupil / physiology