Oscillatory Mechanisms of Preparing for Visual Distraction

J Cogn Neurosci. 2019 Dec;31(12):1873-1894. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_01460. Epub 2019 Aug 16.


Evidence shows that observers preactivate a target representation in preparation of a visual selection task. In this study, we addressed the question if and how preparing to ignore an anticipated distractor differs from preparing for an anticipated target. We measured EEG while participants memorized a laterally presented color, which was cued to be either a target or a distractor in two subsequent visual search tasks. Decoding the location of items in the search display from EOG channels revealed that, initially, the anticipated distractor attracted attention and could only be ignored later during the trial. This suggests that distractors could not be suppressed in advance but were represented in an active, attention-guiding format. Consistent with this, lateralized posterior alpha power did not dissociate between target and distractor templates during the delay periods, suggesting similar encoding and maintenance. However, distractor preparation did lead to relatively enhanced nonlateralized posterior alpha power, which appeared to gate sensory processing at search display onset to prevent attentional capture in general. Finally, anticipating distractors also led to enhanced midfrontal theta power during the delay period, a signal that was predictive of how strongly both target and distractor were represented in the search display. Together, our results speak against a distractor-specific advance inhibitory template, thus contrary to the preactivation of specific target templates. Rather, we demonstrate a general selection suppression mechanism, which serves to prevent initial involuntary capture by anticipated distracting input.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alpha Rhythm / physiology
  • Anticipation, Psychological / physiology*
  • Attention / physiology
  • Color
  • Cues
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Inhibition, Psychological*
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological
  • Models, Psychological
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Sensory Gating / physiology*
  • Theta Rhythm / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology
  • Young Adult