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Title: Spatial attention in task switching
Author: Longman, Cai Stephen
ISNI:       0000 0004 5354 1193
Awarding Body: University of Exeter
Current Institution: University of Exeter
Date of Award: 2014
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This thesis is a systematic investigation of preparatory reorienting of task-relevant spatial attention. Task switching experiments typically report a performance overhead when the current task is different to that performed on the previous trial relative to when the task repeats. This ‘switch cost’ tends to reduce as participants are given more time to prepare (consistent with an active reconfiguration process) but a ‘residual’ switch cost usually remains even at very long preparation intervals (often interpreted as evidence of carryover of response selection parameters from the previous trial which are immune to preparation). Although attentional selection of perceptual attributes is often considered to be part of task-set and is included in some models of task-set control, little research has investigated the dynamics of this component in detail. Over a series of seven experiments in which tasks were consistently mapped to screen locations, eye-tracking was used to systematically investigate task-relevant spatial selection of perceptual attributes during the preparation interval and early after stimulus onset. Experiment 1 revealed a switch-induced delay in appropriate attention orientation and a measure of ‘attentional inertia’ which could not be explained by task-independent re-orienting to locations or low-level oculomotor phenomena but were markers of task-relevant spatial selection. Experiment 2 provided a sensitive measure of both of these attentional handicaps and demonstrated that they both contribute to the switch cost (including its residual component). Although attentional inertia reduced with preparation, both handicaps were present at the longest preparation intervals. The constancy of the delay in attending to the relevant attribute reflects the effort to re-allocate attention, rather than peculiarities of spatial orienting when the cue and stimulus are presented near-simultaneously on trials with short cue-stimulus intervals. The presence of attentional inertia in blocks with long preparation intervals suggested some component of inertia immune to preparation (though see Experiments 5 and 6 below). Experiments 3 and 4 investigated the extent to which attentional selection can be decoupled from other task-set components. Cues which explicitly provided location information reduced (or eliminated) the attentional effects found in Experiment 2 indicating that attentional selection can be decoupled from other task-set components. However, Experiment 3 found that the ‘natural’ state is for attentional selection to be coupled at least to a degree (and accessed via) task-set. Experiment 5 combined eye-tracking with ERPs to investigate the relative order of attentional selection and reconfiguration of other task-set components. A well-documented ERP marker of task-set preparation always followed onset of the first fixation on the currently relevant stimulus element indicating that (at least some) task-set components are reconfigured in a serial order with spatial selection preceding other components (e.g., loading of S-R rules or other parameters into working memory). Experiments 6 and 7 investigated the nature of attentional inertia. In Experiment 6 participants were given ultimate control over the duration of the preparation interval which eliminated attentional inertia (at least as indexed by preferential fixation of the previously relevant element on switch trials). In Experiment 7 the stimulus comprised three items which were from perceptually distinct classes (digits, letters, objects) to investigate whether the presence of task-specific features would elicit extra attentional inertia and whether early spatial selection was effective enough to block the processing of task-irrelevant features once the stimulus was presented. Although there was some evidence that the previously relevant stimulus element ‘captured’ attention, this tendency was modest in the fixations and absent in performance measures (response congruence effects).
Supervisor: Lavric, Aureliu Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: task switching ; spatial attention ; eye-tracking