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An attentional blink in the absence of spatial attention: a cost of awareness?

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The attentional blink refers to the finding that when two visual targets appear within 200–500 ms, observers often miss the second target. In three experiments, we disentangle the roles of spatial attention to and conscious report of the first event in eliciting this cost. We show that allocating spatial attention to the first event is not necessary for a blink to occur: the full temporal pattern of the blink arises when the first event is consciously detected, despite the fact that it is not spatially attended, whereas no cost is observed when the first event is missed. We then show that spatial attention is also not sufficient for eliciting a blink, though it can deepen the blink when accompanied by conscious detection. These results demonstrate that there is no cost associated with the initiation of an attentional episode, whereas explicit conscious detection comes at a price. These findings demonstrate the temporal flexibility of attention and underscore the potential role of subjective awareness in understanding processing limitations, although this role may be contingent on the encoding in working memory necessary for conscious report.

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  1. 1.

    Theeuwes and colleagues have claimed that salient irrelevant color cues mandatorily capture attention (e.g., Theeuwes, Atchley & Kramer, 2000; see Theeuwes, 2010, for a review). However, support for this claim comes almost exclusively from experiments in which the target had a unique feature and could be found by monitoring the displays for a featural discontinuity (i.e., using a search strategy known as the “singleton-detection mode”, Bacon & Egeth, 1994). Evidence for attentional capture by a cue that has a salient feature outside the observer’s attentional state is scarce and has been mostly reported for onset cues (e.g., Folk & Remington, 2015).

  2. 2.

    This same-location cost has been reported in several previous studies (e.g., Anderson & Folk, 2012; Becker, Folk, & Remington, 2013, Experiment 3; Belopolsky et al., 2010; Carmel & Lamy, 2014; 2015; Eimer, Kiss, Press, & Sauter, 2009; Folk & Remington, 2008; Lamy et al., 2015; Lamy, Leber & Egeth, 2004; Schönhammer & Kerzel, 2013). Importantly, although the mechanisms underlying this same-location cost are debated, Carmel and Lamy (2014; 2015) demonstrated that this cost is unrelated to attention and is contingent on conscious perception of the cue.

  3. 3.

    Note that these findings do not contradict the widely accepted idea that attention is necessary for conscious perception (e.g., Dehaene, Changeux, Naccache, Sackur & Sergent, 2006 but see Tsuchiya & Koch, 2016). Indeed, previous research has shown that a stimulus that must be responded to can be consciously detected even if it benefits only from very little—distributed—spatial attention (e.g., Mack & Rock, 1998; Fei-Fei et al., 2005). In Lamy et al.’s (2015) study, participants were asked to rate the irrelevant-color cue’s visibility—a task that required no more than detecting a color singleton, and therefore, did not require spatial attention. By contrast, relevant-color cues captured attention, yet were sometimes missed. This finding is consistent with previous reports showing that spatial attention is not sufficient for conscious perception (e.g., Kentridge, Nijboer & Heywood, 2008).

  4. 4.

    The reason why the cue color in one group did not exactly match the target color in the other group is that different factors constrained the choice of the target and cue colors. On the one hand, the target color had to be discriminable enough for baseline performance to remain relatively high, as is characteristic of previous AB studies. On the other hand, the cue color had to be faint enough for participants to be entirely unaware of its presence (and rate its visibility as null) on a sizeable proportion of the trials. Note that the latter constraint differed in this experiment relative to the previous one, in which CFS was used: in Experiment 3, the cue had to be strong enough to overcome suppression on enough trials to elicit above 0 visibility ratings.

  5. 5.

    Previous studies reported the incidental finding that RTs to a target are slower when this target follows a prime that is consciously perceived relative to when this prime escapes awareness (e.g., Lamy et al., 2015; Peremen & Lamy, 2014a, b; see also Van den Bussche et al., 2013). As the time interval between the prime and target in these studies typically fell within the range of the blink period, the observed impairment is likely to reflect, at least in part, the same cost of awareness as reported in the present study.

  6. 6.

    McKay and Juola (2007) showed that spatial and temporal cues are associated with independent cueing benefits. However, this finding only entails that observers can take advantage of two separate sources of knowledge and that these have additive effects on performance. McKay and Juola’s (2007) finding does not entail that spatial selection and temporal attentional selection per se, operate independently of each other.


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Support was provided by the Israel Science Foundation (ISF) Grant nos. 1475/12 and 1286/16 to Dominique Lamy. We thank Guido Hesselmann for very useful discussions and Olga Nevenchannaya for her precious help in running the experiments.

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Correspondence to Eyal Alef Ophir.

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Our cognitive system is severely limited in its ability to process events that appear in rapid succession. To understand how we cope with such limitation in our highly dynamic daily environment, it is important to identify the main limiting factor. Here, we demonstrate that we can allocate our spatial attention to successive events with no apparent temporal limitations, and that when explicitly reported, conscious experience constitutes a bottleneck: explicit detection of an event entails a cost at processing a subsequent event.

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Alef Ophir, E., Sherman, E. & Lamy, D. An attentional blink in the absence of spatial attention: a cost of awareness?. Psychological Research (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-018-1100-x

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