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J Vis. 2002;2(9):588-96.

Neural correlates of object-based attention.

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Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, San Francisco, CA, USA.


Much research has been directed toward disentangling the "units" of attention: Is attention directed to locations in space, visual objects, or to individual features of an object? Moreover, there is considerable interest in whether attention increases the gain of neural mechanisms (signal enhancement) or acts by other means, such as reducing noise or narrowing channel tuning. To address these questions, we used a direct measure of signal strength: the amplitude of visual evoked potentials and a task in which selection could be based on a depth order cue but not on location. Attended and nonattended stimuli were presented at different temporal frequencies, and, thus, responses to the two stimuli could be analyzed separately even though they were presented simultaneously. Attention increased the amplitude of the second harmonic component of the response, but not the fourth harmonic. In addition, responses measured at the second harmonic, but not at the fourth harmonic, were larger for stimuli seen as behind. The results are consistent with the fourth harmonic being generated at a stage of processing that is not accessible to attention and where depth order has not been extracted. The second harmonic, on the other hand, is modifiable by attention and shows evidence for differential encoding of depth order.

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