A Neurophysiological Study on the Attentional Capture


  • Serap Özlü University of Vienna


According to the Attentional Dwelling Hypothesis (Gaspelin et al., 2016), irrelevant abrupt-onset cues capture attention in a stimulus-driven way, and attention then dwells at cue position until target display onset. As a consequence, search can be facilitated if a target is presented at the cued location (in valid conditions) relative to presenting the target away from the cue (in invalid conditions). Critically, the size of behavioral effects (i.e., cueing effects) is a function of search difficulty and thus, becoming evident only under difficult search conditions.

Even though, there are many replications of significant research findings on attentional capture by salient, task-irrelevant abrupt onsets in visual search, additional neurophysiological measurements were not used in previous studies. The main reason why almost no electroencephalography (EEG) studies are published on this topic until now lays in the nature of the cue itself: A bright, lateralized stimulus.

To circumvent the problems related to the physical nature of the cue, we ran an additional difficult search block but with task-relevant cues (red). This served as a control condition: If task-irrelevant cues capture attention, we should find no difference in event-related potential (ERP) waveforms between them and the ones of task-relevant cues.

In this study, we used both behavioral measures (i.e., cueing effects in reaction times and error rates), and EEG to test if task-irrelevant abrupt-onset cues capture attention during difficult color search.

Thus, our participants searched for a color-defined target among differently colored distractors. In each trial, the target (e.g., a red stimulus) was presented at one out of four possible target locations. Prior to the target, we presented a white onset cue at one of the four possible target positions. In addition, as the target color (i.e., red) is far away in color space to the color of the onset cue (i.e., white), we expected the cue not to capture attention from the perspective of prominent top-down attentional control theories in which capture is contingent on our current search goals.

We found behavioral support for attentional capture of task-irrelevant cues, but no support for the Attentional Dwelling Hypothesis in the size of cueing effects as a function of search difficulty.

Conclusively, the implemented search protocol in this study, as well as the use of new analysis methods on ERP components elicited by a single, lateralized stimulus has relevant implications for future ERP research on attentional capture in cueing studies.



[1] N. Gaspelin and M.C. Lien, “The problem of latent attentional capture: Easy visual search conceals capture by task-irrelevant abrupt onsets,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, vol. 42, no. 8, pp. 1104–1120, 2016.