Conjunction Search Is Relational: Behavioral and Electrophysiological Evidence

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Attention selects behaviorally relevant stimuli for further capacity-limited processing and gates their access to awareness. Given the importance of attention for conscious perception, it is important to determine the factors and mechanisms that drive attention. A widespread view is that attention is biased to the specific feature values of a conjunction target (e.g., vertical, red, medium). By contrast, the results of the present study show that attention is tuned to the 2 relative features that distinguish a conjunction target from the irrelevant nontargets (e.g., larger and bluer). Moreover, an irrelevant conjunction cue that is briefly presented prior to the target can automatically attract attention, even in the absence of any feature contrasts. Importantly, automatic orienting to the conjunction cue was completely independent of the physical similarity between cue and target, and depended only on whether the conjunction cue matched the relative features of the target. These results demonstrate that attentional orienting is determined by a mechanism that can rapidly extract information about feature relationships and guide attention to the stimulus that best matches the relative attributes of the target. These results are difficult to reconcile with extant feature-specific accounts or object-based accounts of attention and argue for a relational account of conjunction search.

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