What Top-Down Task Sets Do For Us: An ERP Study on The Benefits of Advance Preparation in Visual Search

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When target-defining features are specified in advance, attentional target selection in visual search is controlled by preparatory top-down task sets. We used ERP measures to study voluntary target selection in the absence of such feature-specific task sets, and to compare it to selection that is guided by advance knowledge about target features. Visual search arrays contained two different color singleton digits, and participants had to select one of these as target and report its parity. Target color was either known in advance (fixed color task) or had to be selected anew on each trial (free color-choice task). ERP correlates of spatially selective attentional target selection (N2pc) and working memory processing (SPCN) demonstrated rapid target selection and efficient exclusion of color singleton distractors from focal attention and working memory in the fixed color task. In the free color-choice task, spatially selective processing also emerged rapidly, but selection efficiency was reduced, with nontarget singleton digits capturing attention and gaining access to working memory. Results demonstrate the benefits of top-down task sets: Feature-specific advance preparation accelerates target selection, rapidly resolves attentional competition, and prevents irrelevant events from attracting attention and entering working memory.

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