The neural mechanisms of attention: Exploring threat-related suppression and enhancement using ERPs

  • Paul Bretherton

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The capacity of the visual system to process information about multiple objects at any given moment in time is limited. This is because not all information can be processed equally or in parallel and subsequently reach consciousness. Previous research has utilized behavioral experiments to explore visual attention. More recently research, however, has used electroencephalography (EEG) to measuring the electrical brain activity in the posterior scalp. By time locking visual stimulus events to fluctuations in scalp activity researchers have been able to estimate the time course of attentional changes by measuring changes in these event-related potentials (ERP). One component in particular (N2pc) has been a reliable tool in measuring either the suppression of, or the shift of attentional to, both ignored and attended items in the visual scene. The N2pc is measured by comparing the ERP activity contralateral and ipsilateral to the visual field of interest. More recently, evidence has been presented that the mechanisms of attention thought to be represented by the N2pc (suppression and attentional selection) could be separated into different ERP components (Pd: indexing attentional suppression of an ignored item; and Nt: indexing attentional selection of the target) and measured independently. In six experiments, using ERPs, this thesis employs these components to explore the mechanisms and strategies of the human attentional system. Additionally, this thesis focuses on the impact of different types of simultaneous processing load on the attentional system and how the mechanisms of this system are influenced.Experiment 1 explores the idea that the type or valence of information to be ignored may influence the ability to suppress it. Results of this experiment show that neither the type nor valence of the irrelevant information modulated the amplitude of the distractor positivity (Pd), indicating suppression of the irrelevant distractor was not altered. Noted in experiment 1 was also the presence of an early negativity (Ne) that appeared to represent attentional capture of the ignored lateral stimulus. Experiment 2 demonstrated that the valence of the lateral target did not alter the target negativity (Nt), indicating a different pattern of results between the Nt and the N2pc reported in previous studies (e.g. Eimer & Kiss, 2007; Feldmann-Wüstefeld et al., 2010). Experiment 2 also showed a similarity of the target negativity (Nt) to the early negativity (Ne; the N2pc like component observed in exp 1) toward face and non-face stimuli. This comparison supported the idea that the early negativity (Ne) reflected attentional capture of the ignored lateral distractor and as a result was relabelled the distractor negativity (Nd) in subsequent experiments. Experiment 3 showed that the salience of the lateral image did not modulate the Pd as should be the case if the Pd reflected sensory-level processing. An early contralateral negativity (similar to the Nd observed in exp 1) was altered by the salience of the distractor which added support to the hypothesis that this reflects attentional capture of the lateral ignored image. Experiment 4 attempted to manipulate working memory (WM) to assess the effect of WM load on attentional capture and suppression. While the results did indicate modulation of suppression under WM load, the limitations of the design of experiment 4 made any definitive interpretation of the results unreliable. The results of experiment 5 showed that suppression, as indexed by the Pd, was not altered by cognitive load. However, reductions in attentional capture under high cognitive load, as indexed by the distractor negativity (Nd), were observed and contradict the results of previous experiments (c.f. Lavie & De Fockert, 2005) where cognitive load resulted in an increase in attentional capture. Although, there appears to be some issue in the authors interpretation of the results of these experiments (see chapter 6 for discussion). The results of Experiment 6 show the opposite effect with a significant increase in the laterality of the Pd under high perceptual load. A similar increase in the laterality of the Pd was not reflected in terms of valence though, where suppression of threat related distractors was not altered under high perceptual load. The hypothesis that an increase in perceptual load will result in a decrease in attentional capture was generally supported by the results of experiment 6. Under high perceptual load angry face distractors captured attention, as indexed by the laterality of the Nd, with neutral face distractors showing a reduction in attentional capture. While under low perceptual load, both angry and neutral face distractors resulted in a significant (and similar) laterality of the Nd.The thesis concludes by discussing issues concerning Lavie’s Load Theory of attention and outlines some potential misinterpretations of previous data that have led to the proposal that cognitive load results in a decrease in attentional resources and therefore a decrease in attentional capture of ignored stimuli. It is argued in this thesis that the results of Lavie and de Fockert (2005), which concluded that the increase in cognitive load resulted in a decrease in attentional capture, are more likely to be due to changes in attentional capture (i.e. a reduction) and changes in RT (i.e. an increase), under cognitive load being separate responses to the availability of resources, one that focuses attention on the goal directed task and the other that results in extended processing time to carry out the more difficult task. In this case both ‘changes’ appear to work to prioritise resources in favour of the goal directed task.
Date of Award27 Jul 2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Roehampton
SupervisorAmanda Holmes (Supervisor) & Michael Eysenck (Supervisor)


  • N2pc
  • Nd
  • Pd
  • Attention
  • Perception
  • Emotion
  • ERPs

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