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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

February 2020, Vol. 32, No. 2, Pages 367-377
(doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_01502)
© 2019 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Failed Suppression of Salient Stimuli Precedes Behavioral Errors
Article PDF (858.62 KB)
Our visual system is constantly confronted with more information than it can process. To deal with the limited capacity, attention allows us to enhance relevant information and suppress irrelevant information. Particularly, the suppression of salient irrelevant stimuli has shown to be important as it prevents attention to be captured and thus attentional resources to be wasted. This study aimed at directly connecting failures to suppress distraction with a neural marker of suppression, the distractor positivity (Pd). We measured participants' EEG signal while they performed a visual search task in which they had to report a digit inside a shape target while ignoring distractors, one of which could be a salient color singleton. Reports of target digits served as a behavioral index of enhancement, and reports of color distractor digits served as a behavioral index of failed suppression, each measured against reports of neutral distractor digits serving as a baseline. Participants reported the target identity more often than any distractor identity. The singleton identity was reported least often, suggesting suppression of the singleton below baseline. Suppression of salient stimuli was absent in the beginning and then increased throughout the experiment. When the singleton identity was reported, the Pd was observed in a later time window, suggesting that behavioral errors were preceded by failed suppression. Our results provide evidence for the signal suppression hypothesis that states salient items have to be actively suppressed to avoid attentional capture. Our results also provide direct evidence that the Pd is reflecting such active suppression.