April 14, 2021

Sensitivity enhancement and selection are shared mechanisms for spatial and feature-based attention

Human observers use cues to guide visual attention to the most behaviorally relevant parts of the visual world. Cues are often separated into two forms: those that rely on spatial location and those that use features, such as motion or color. These forms of cueing are known to rely on different populations of neurons. Despite these differences in neural implementation, attention may rely on shared computational principles, enhancing and selecting sensory representations in a similar manner for all types of cues. Here we examine whether evidence for shared computational mechanisms can be obtained from how attentional cues enhance performance in estimation tasks. In our tasks, observers were cued either by spatial location or feature to two of four dot patches. They then estimated the color or motion direction of one of the cued patches, or averaged them. In all cases we found that cueing improved performance. We decomposed the effects of the cues on behavior into model parameters that separated sensitivity enhancement from sensory selection and found that both were important to explain improved performance. We found that a model which shared parameters across forms of cueing was favored by our analysis, suggesting that observers have equal sensitivity and likelihood of making selection errors whether cued by location or feature. Our perceptual data support theories in which a shared computational mechanism is re-used by all forms of attention.

 bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience

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