Covert Spatial Attention Speeds Target Individuation

J Neurosci. 2020 Mar 25;40(13):2717-2726. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2962-19.2020. Epub 2020 Feb 13.


Covert spatial attention has long been thought to speed visual processing. Psychophysics studies have shown that target information accrues faster at attended locations than at unattended locations. However, with behavioral evidence alone, it is difficult to determine whether attention speeds visual processing of the target or subsequent postperceptual stages of processing (e.g., converting sensory responses into decision signals). Moreover, although many studies have shown that attention can boost the amplitude of visually evoked neural responses, no robust effect has been observed on the latency of those neural responses. Here, we offer new evidence that may reconcile the neural and behavioral findings. We examined whether covert attention influenced the latency of the N2pc component, an electrophysiological marker of visual selection that has been linked with object individuation-the formation of an object representation that is distinct from the background and from other objects in the scene. To this end, we manipulated whether or not human observers (male and female) covertly attended the location of an impending search target. We found that the target evoked N2pc onset ∼20 ms earlier when the target location was cued than when it was not cued. In a second experiment, we provided a direct replication of this effect, confirming that the effect of attention on N2pc latency is robust. Thus, although attention may not speed the earliest stages of sensory processing, attention does speed the critical transition between raw sensory encoding and the formation of individuated object representations.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Covert spatial attention improves processing at attended locations. Past behavioral studies have shown that information about visual targets accrues faster at attended than at unattended locations. However, it has remained unclear whether attention speeds perceptual analysis or subsequent postperceptual stages of processing. Here, we present robust evidence that attention speeds the N2pc, an electrophysiological signal that indexes the formation of individuated object representations. Our findings show that attention speeds a relatively early stage of perceptual processing while also elucidating the specific perceptual process that is speeded.

Keywords: EEG; N2pc; attention; individuation; latency.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cues
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials, Visual / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Individuation*
  • Male
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Reaction Time / physiology*
  • Space Perception / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology
  • Young Adult