The time-course of component processes of selective attention.


Attentional selection shapes human perception, enhancing relevant information, according to behavioral goals. While many studies have investigated individual neural signatures of attention, here we used multivariate decoding of electrophysiological brain responses (MEG/EEG) to track and compare multiple component processes of selective attention. Auditory cues instructed participants to select a particular visual target, embedded within a subsequent stream of displays. Combining single and multi-item displays with different types of distractors allowed multiple aspects of information content to be decoded, distinguishing distinct components of attention, as the selection process evolved. Although the task required comparison of items to an attentional "template" held in memory, signals consistent with such a template were largely undetectable throughout the preparatory period but re-emerged after presentation of a non-target choice display. Choice displays evoked strong neural representation of multiple target features, evolving over different timescales. We quantified five distinct processing operations with different time-courses. First, visual properties of the stimulus were strongly represented. Second, the candidate target was rapidly identified and localized in multi-item displays, providing the earliest evidence of modulation by behavioral relevance. Third, the identity of the target continued to be enhanced, relative to distractors. Fourth, only later was the behavioral significance of the target explicitly represented in single-item displays. Finally, if the target was not identified and search was to be resumed, then an attentional template was weakly reactivated. The observation that an item's behavioral relevance directs attention in multi-item displays prior to explicit representation of target/non-target status in single-item displays is consistent with two-stage models of attention.