October 20, 2020

Theta rhythmic attentional enhancement of alpha rhythmic perceptual sampling

Accumulating evidence suggests that visual perception operates in an oscillatory fashion at an alpha frequency (around 10 Hz). Moreover, visual attention also seems to operate rhythmically, albeit at a theta frequency (around 5 Hz). Both rhythms are often associated to "perceptual snapshots" taken at the favorable phases of these rhythms. However, less is known about the unfavorable phases: do they constitute "blind gaps," requiring the observer to guess, or is information sampled with reduced precision insufficient for the task demands? As simple detection or discrimination tasks cannot distinguish these options, we applied a continuous report task by asking for the exact orientation of a Landolt ring’s gap to estimate separate model parameters for precision and the amount of guessing. We embedded this task in a well-established psychophysical protocol by densely sampling such reports across 20 cue-target stimulus onset asynchronies in a Posner-like cueing paradigm manipulating involuntary spatial attention. Testing the resulting time courses of the guessing and precision parameters for rhythmicities using a fast Fourier transform, we found an alpha rhythm (9.6 Hz) in the precision parameter and a theta rhythm (4.8 Hz) in the guess rate for invalidly cued trials. These results indicate that the perceptual alpha rhythm reflects fluctuations in spatial resolution, while the attentional theta rhythm provides periodic enhancement of this resolution. We propose a tentative model for this interplay and argue that both rhythms result in an environmental sampling characterized by fluctuating spatial resolution, speaking against a strict succession of blind gaps and perceptual snapshots.

 bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience

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