Attention does more than modulate suppressive interactions: Attending to multiple items

Paige E. Scalf, Chandramalika Basak, Diane M. Beck

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Directing attention to a visual item enhances its representations, making it more likely to guide behavior (Corbetta et al. 1991). Attention is thought to produce this enhancement by biasing suppressive interactions among multiple items in visual cortex in favor of the attended item (e.g., Desimone and Duncan 1995; Reynolds and Heeger 2009). We ask whether target enhancement and modulation of suppressive interactions are in fact inextricably linked or whether they can be decoupled. In particular, we ask whether simultaneously directing attention to multiple items may be one means of dissociating the influence of attention-related enhancement from the effects of inter-item suppression. When multiple items are attended, suppressive interactions in visual cortex limit the effectiveness with which attention may act on their representations, presumably because "biasing" the interactions in favor of a single item is no longer possible (Scalf and Beck 2010). In this experiment, we directly investigate whether applying attention to multiple competing stimulus items has any influence on either their evoked signal or their suppressive interactions. Both BOLD signal evoked by the items in V4 and behavioral responses to those items were significantly compromised by simultaneous presentation relative to simultaneous presentation, indicating that when the items appeared at the same time, they interacted in a mutually suppressive manner that compromised their ability to guide behavior. Attention significantly enhanced signal in V4. The attentional status of the items, however, had no influence on the suppressive effects of simultaneous presentation. To our knowledge, these data are the first to explicitly decouple the effects of top-down attention from those of inter-item suppression.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)293-304
Number of pages12
JournalExperimental Brain Research
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jul 2011


  • Attention
  • Biased competition
  • Vision
  • fMRI

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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