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PLoS One. 2012;7(7):e41257. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0041257. Epub 2012 Jul 18.

On the blink: the importance of target-distractor similarity in eliciting an attentional blink with faces.

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  • 1Department of Neurophysiology and Pathophysiology, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Hamburg, Germany.


Temporal allocation of attention is often investigated with a paradigm in which two relevant target items are presented in a rapid sequence of irrelevant distractors. The term Attentional Blink (AB) denotes a transient impairment of awareness for the second of these two target items when presented close in time. Experimental studies reported that the AB is reduced when the second target is emotionally significant, suggesting a modulation of attention allocation. The aim of the present study was to systematically investigate the influence of target-distractor similarity on AB magnitude for faces with emotional expressions under conditions of limited attention in a series of six rapid serial visual presentation experiments. The task on the first target was either to discriminate the gender of a neutral face (Experiments 1, 3-6) or an indoor/outdoor visual scene (Experiment 2). The task on the second target required either the detection of emotional expressions (Experiments 1-5) or the detection of a face (Experiment 6). The AB was minimal or absent when targets could be easily discriminated from each other. Three successive experiments revealed that insufficient masking and target-distractor similarity could account for the observed immunity of faces against the AB in the first two experiments. An AB was present but not increased when the facial expression was irrelevant to the task suggesting that target-distractor similarity plays a more important role in eliciting an AB than the attentional set demanded by the specific task. In line with previous work, emotional faces were less affected by the AB.

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