Attention amplifies neural representations of changes in sensory input at the expense of perceptual accuracy

Nat Commun. 2020 May 1;11(1):2128. doi: 10.1038/s41467-020-15989-0.


Attention enhances the neural representations of behaviorally relevant stimuli, typically by a push-pull increase of the neuronal response gain to attended vs. unattended stimuli. This selectively improves perception and consequently behavioral performance. However, to enhance the detectability of stimulus changes, attention might also distort neural representations, compromising accurate stimulus representation. We test this hypothesis by recording neural responses in the visual cortex of rhesus monkeys during a motion direction change detection task. We find that attention indeed amplifies the neural representation of direction changes, beyond a similar effect of adaptation. We further show that humans overestimate such direction changes, providing a perceptual correlate of our neurophysiological observations. Our results demonstrate that attention distorts the neural representations of abrupt sensory changes and consequently perceptual accuracy. This likely represents an evolutionary adaptive mechanism that allows sensory systems to flexibly forgo accurate representation of stimulus features to improve the encoding of stimulus change.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Electrophysiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Macaca mulatta
  • Male
  • Neurons / cytology
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Visual Cortex / physiology
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult