Mechanisms of Attentional Control: A Special Issue in Honor of the Contributions of Steven Yantis

Stephan Lewandowsky


Steve Yantis was a leading researcher in attention and cognitive neuroscience who passed away two years ago. In recognition of his work for the Psychonomic Society, one of the Society’s Early Career Awards is named in his honor.

And just this week, a special issue of the Psychonomic Society’s journal Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics appeared in honor of the contributions of Steven Yantis, entitled Mechanisms of Attentional Control.

The complete table of contents for the special issue can be found here. Four articles in the special issue will be Open Access for the next three months, and there abstracts and references are shown below.

“My brain made me do it”

The first article should be familiar from an earlier post about free will (or was it a willusion?):

Gmeindl, L., Chiu, Y. C., Esterman, M. S., Greenberg, A. S., Courtney, S. M., & Yantis, S. (2016). Tracking the will to attend: Cortical activity indexes self-generated, voluntary shifts of attention. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics. DOI: 10.3758/s13414-016-1159-7.

Abstract: The neural substrates of volition have long tantalized philosophers and scientists. Over the past few decades, researchers have employed increasingly sophisticated technology to investigate this issue, but many studies have been limited considerably by their reliance on intrusive experimental procedures (e.g., abrupt instructional cues), measures of brain activity contaminated by overt behavior, or introspective self-report techniques of questionable validity. Here, we used multivoxel pattern time-course analysis of functional magnetic resonance imaging data to index voluntary, covert perceptual acts—shifts of visuospatial attention—in the absence of instructional cues, overt behavioral indices, and self-report.

We found that these self-generated, voluntary attention shifts were time-locked to activity in the medial superior parietal lobule, supporting the hypothesis that this brain region is engaged in voluntary attentional reconfiguration. Self-generated attention shifts were also time-locked to activity in the basal ganglia, a novel finding that motivates further research into the role of the basal ganglia in acts of volition. Remarkably, prior to self-generated shifts of attention, we observed early and selective increases in the activation of medial frontal (dorsal anterior cingulate) and lateral prefrontal (right middle frontal gyrus) cortex—activity that likely reflects processing related to the intention or preparation to reorient attention.

These findings, which extend recent evidence on freely chosen motor movements, suggest that dorsal anterior cingulate and lateral prefrontal cortices play key roles in both overt and covert acts of volition, and may constitute core components of a brain network underlying the will to attend.

Dynamically changing attentional control

Irons, J. L. & Leber, A. B. (2016). Choosing attentional control settings in a dynamically changing environment.Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics. DOI: 10.3758/s13414-016-1125-4

Abstract: Goal-directed attentional control supports efficient visual search by prioritizing relevant stimuli in the environment. Previous research has shown that goal-directed control can be configured in many ways, and often multiple control settings can be used to achieve the same goal. However, little is known about how control settings are selected. We explored the extent to which the configuration of goal-directed control is driven by performance maximization (optimally configuring settings to maximize speed and accuracy) andeffort minimization (selecting the least effortful settings). We used a new paradigm, adaptive choice visual search, which allows participants to choose one of two available targets (a red or a blue square) on each trial. Distractor colors vary predictively across trials, such that the optimal target switches back and forth throughout the experiment. Results (N = 43) show that participants chose the optimal target most often, updating to the new target when the environment changed, supporting performance maximization. However, individuals were sluggish to update to the optimal color, consistent with effort minimization. Additionally, we found a surprisingly high rate of nonoptimal choices and switching between targets, which could not be explained by either factor. Analysis of participants’ self-reported search strategy revealed substantial individual differences in the control strategies used. In sum, the adaptive choice visual search enables a fresh approach to studying goal-directed control. The results contribute new evidence that control is partly determined by both performance maximization and effort minimization, as well as at least one additional factor, which we speculate to include novelty seeking.

Funny money

Roper, Z.J.J. & Vecera, S.P. (2016). Funny money: the attentional role of monetary feedback detached from expected value. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics. DOI: 10.3758/s13414-016-1147-y

Abstract: Stimuli associated with monetary reward can become powerful cues that effectively capture visual attention. We examined whether such value-driven attentional capture can be induced with monetary feedback in the absence of an expected cash payout. To this end, we implemented images of U.S. dollar bills as reward feedback. Participants knew in advance that they would not receive any money based on their performance. Our reward stimuli—$5 and $20 bill images—were thus dissociated from any practical utility. Strikingly, we observed a reliable attentional capture effect for the mere images of bills. Moreover, this finding generalized to Monopoly money. In two control experiments, we found no evidence in favor of nominal or symbolic monetary value. Hence, we claim that bill images are special monetary representations, such that there are strong associations between the defining visual features of bills and reward, probably due to a lifelong learning history. Together, we show that the motivation to earn cash plays a minor role when it comes to monetary rewards, while bill-defining visual features seem to be sufficient. These findings have the potential to influence human factor applications, such as gamification, and can be extended to novel value systems, such as the electronic cash Bitcoin being developed for use in mobile banking. Finally, our procedure represents a proof of concept on how images of money can be used to conserve expenditures in the experimental context.

Are all captures equally captivating?

Roque, N.A., Wright, T.J. & Boot, W.R. (2016). Do different attention capture paradigms measure different types of capture? Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics. DOI: 10.3758/s13414-016-1117-4.

Abstract: When something captures our attention, why does it do so? This topic has been hotly debated, with some arguing that attention is captured only by salient stimuli (bottom-up view) and others arguing capture is always due to a match between a stimulus and our goals (top-down view). Many different paradigms have provided evidence for 1 view or the other. If either of these strong views are correct, then capture represents a unitary phenomenon, and there should be a high correlation between capture in these paradigms. But if there are different types of capture (top-down, bottom-up), then some attention capture effects should be correlated and some should not. In 2 studies, we collected data from several paradigms used in support of claims of top-down and bottom-up capture in relatively large samples of participants. Contrary to either prediction, measures of capture were not strongly correlated. Results suggest that capture may in fact be strongly determined by idiosyncratic task demands and strategies. Relevant to this lack of relations among tasks, we observed that classic measures of attention capture demonstrated low reliability, especially among measures used to support bottom-up capture. Implications for the low reliability of capture measures are discussed. We also observed that the proportion of participants demonstrating a pattern of responses consistent with capture varied widely among classic measures of capture. Overall, results demonstrate that, even for relatively simple laboratory measures of attention, there are still important gaps in knowledge regarding what these paradigms measure and how they are related.


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