Category-Based Guidance of Spatial Attention During Visual Search for Feature Conjunctions

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Abstract

The question whether alphanumerical category is involved in the control of attentional target selection during visual search remains a contentious issue. We tested whether category-based attentional mechanisms would guide the allocation of attention under conditions where targets were defined by a combination of alphanumerical category and a basic visual feature, and search displays could contain both targets and partially matching distractor objects. The N2pc component was used as an electrophysiological marker of attentional object selection in tasks where target objects were defined by a conjunction of color and category (Experiment 1) or shape and category (Experiment 2). Some search displays contained the target or a nontarget object that matched either the target color/shape or its category among 3 nonmatching distractors. In other displays, the target and a partially matching nontarget object appeared together. N2pc components were elicited not only by targets and by color- or shape-matching nontargets, but also by category-matching nontarget objects, even on trials where a target was present in the same display. On these trials, the summed N2pc components to the 2 types of partially matching nontargets were initially equal in size to the target N2pc, suggesting that attention was allocated simultaneously and independently to all objects with target-matching features during the early phase of attentional processing. Results demonstrate that alphanumerical category is a genuine guiding feature that can operate in parallel with color or shape information to control the deployment of attention during visual search.

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