Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
The perceptual load theory of attention posits that attentional selection occurs early in processing when a task is perceptually demanding but occurs late in processing otherwise. We used a frequency-tagged steady-state evoked potential paradigm to investigate the modality specificity of perceptual load-induced distractor filtering and the nature of neural-competitive interactions between task and distractor stimuli. EEG data were recorded while participants monitored a stream of stimuli occurring in rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) for the appearance of previously assigned targets. Perceptual load was manipulated by assigning targets that were identifiable by color alone (low load) or by the conjunction of color and orientation (high load). The RSVP task was performed alone and in the presence of task-irrelevant visual and auditory distractors. The RSVP stimuli, visual distractors, and auditory distractors were “tagged” by modulating each at a unique frequency (2.5, 8.5, and 40.0 Hz, respectively), which allowed each to be analyzed separately in the frequency domain. We report three important findings regarding the neural mechanisms of perceptual load. First, we replicated previous findings of within-modality distractor filtering and demonstrated a reduction in visual distractor signals with high perceptual load. Second, auditory steady-state distractor signals were unaffected by manipulations of visual perceptual load, consistent with the idea that perceptual load-induced distractor filtering is modality specific. Third, analysis of task-related signals revealed that visual distractors competed with task stimuli for representation and that increased perceptual load appeared to resolve this competition in favor of the task stimulus.