The Guidance of Visual Search by Shape Features and Shape Configurations

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Representations of target features (attentional templates) guide attentional object selection during visual search. In many search tasks, targets objects are defined not by a single feature but by the spatial configuration of their component shapes. We used electrophysiological markers of attentional selection processes to determine whether the guidance of shape configuration search is entirely part-based or sensitive to the spatial relationship between shape features. Participants searched for targets defined by the spatial arrangement of two shape components (e.g., hourglass above circle). N2pc components were triggered not only by targets but also by partially matching distractors with one target shape (e.g., hourglass above hexagon) and by distractors that contained both target shapes in the reverse arrangement (e.g., circle above hourglass), in line with part-based attentional control. Target N2pc components were delayed when a reverse distractor was present on the opposite side of the same display, suggesting that early shape-specific attentional guidance processes could not distinguish between targets and reverse distractors. The control of attention then became sensitive to spatial configuration, which resulted in a stronger attentional bias for target objects relative to reverse and partially matching distractors. Results demonstrate that search for target objects defined by the spatial arrangement of their component shapes is initially controlled in a feature-based fashion but can later be guided by templates for spatial configurations.

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