Perceptual Learning Induces Persistent Attentional Capture by Nonsalient Shapes

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Visual attention can be attracted automatically by salient simple features, but whether and how nonsalient complex stimuli such as shapes may capture attention in humans remains unclear. Here, we present strong electrophysiological evidence that a nonsalient shape presented among similar shapes can provoke a robust and persistent capture of attention as a consequence of extensive training in visual search (VS) for that shape. Strikingly, this attentional capture that followed perceptual learning (PL) was evident even when the trained shape was task-irrelevant, was presented outside the focus of top-down spatial attention, and was undetected by the observer. Moreover, this attentional capture persisted for at least 3-5 months after training had been terminated. This involuntary capture of attention was indexed by electrophysiological recordings of the N2pc component of the event-related brain potential, which was localized to ventral extrastriate visual cortex, and was highly predictive of stimulus-specific improvement in VS ability following PL. These findings provide the first evidence that nonsalient shapes can capture visual attention automatically following PL and challenge the prominent view that detection of feature conjunctions requires top-down focal attention.

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