Learning What Is Irrelevant or Relevant: Expectations Facilitate Distractor Inhibition and Target Facilitation through Distinct Neural Mechanisms

J Neurosci. 2019 Aug 28;39(35):6953-6967. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0593-19.2019. Epub 2019 Jul 3.


It is well known that attention can facilitate performance by top-down biasing processing of task-relevant information in advance. Recent findings from behavioral studies suggest that distractor inhibition is not under similar direct control but strongly dependent on expectations derived from previous experience. Yet, how expectations about distracting information influence distractor inhibition at the neural level remains unclear. The current study addressed this outstanding question in three experiments in which search displays with repeating distractor or target locations across trials allowed human observers (male and female) to learn which location to selectively suppress or boost. Behavioral findings demonstrated that both distractor and target location learning resulted in more efficient search, as indexed by faster response times. Crucially, distractor learning benefits were observed without target location foreknowledge, unaffected by the number of possible target locations, and could not be explained by priming alone. To determine how distractor location expectations facilitated performance, we applied a spatial encoding model to EEG data to reconstruct activity in neural populations tuned to distractor or target locations. Target location learning increased neural tuning to target locations in advance, indicative of preparatory biasing. This sensitivity increased after target presentation. By contrast, distractor expectations did not change preparatory spatial tuning. Instead, distractor expectations reduced distractor-specific processing, as reflected in the disappearance of the Pd event-related potential component, a neural marker of distractor inhibition, and decreased decoding accuracy. These findings suggest that the brain may no longer process expected distractors as distractors, once it has learned they can safely be ignored.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT We constantly try hard to ignore conspicuous events that distract us from our current goals. Surprisingly, and in contrast to dominant attention theories, ignoring distracting, but irrelevant, events does not seem to be as flexible as is focusing our attention on those same aspects. Instead, distractor suppression appears to strongly rely on learned, context-dependent expectations. Here, we investigated how learning about upcoming distractors changes distractor processing and directly contrasted the underlying neural dynamics to target learning. We show that, while target learning enhanced anticipatory sensory tuning, distractor learning only modulated reactive suppressive processing. These results suggest that expected distractors may no longer be considered distractors by the brain once it has learned that they can safely be ignored.

Keywords: EEG; attention; brain; expectation; inhibition; statistical learning.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Male
  • Nerve Net / physiology
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Young Adult