Spatial Attention Appears Modulated by Behaviourally Relevant Contexts

Poster Presentation: Sunday, May 19, 2024, 8:30 am – 12:30 pm, Pavilion
Session: Attention: Spatial selection 2

Noah Britt1 (), Jiali Song2, Jackie Chau1, Hong-jin Sun1; 1McMaster University, 2University of Toronto Mississauga

It is well-documented that visual spatial attention can be modulated by the visual features of objects in the environment if the features contain semantic information, especially when behaviourally relevant (e.g., emotional facial expressions). The current study demonstrated that observers could prioritize attention toward specific object features when, and only when, the object becomes relevant within a certain behaviourally relevant context. In the current study, using virtual 3-D technology, we presented to licensed drivers a modified cue-target paradigm where a peripheral cylinder cue was followed by a peripheral roadside pedestrian target. Participants discriminated the hand/arm position of the pedestrian with a button-press on a steering wheel. The pedestrian target could appear on the same or different side of the road as the cue. In addition, pedestrians could appear oriented toward the road or away from the road—but this feature remained irrelevant to the participants’ responses. Through three experiments, we consistently found that, in the 3-D experimental condition where participants ‘drive’ within a virtual simulation, the cueing effect was significantly larger when pedestrians were facing towards the road compared to away from the road. This revealed enhanced attention towards targets—specifically those facing the road—in the cued location while driving. In contrast, this sensitivity for pedestrian orientation was not present in the three control conditions: 1) 3-D Stationary (non-driving), 2) 2-D Stationary (non-driving), and 3) another 3-D Driving scenario with an inanimate light-post target. These results suggest that drivers have heightened attention to pedestrians facing the road even though the pedestrian orientation was task-irrelevant. Licensed drivers likely demonstrated a preparatory mechanism to prioritize attention toward an event that may indicate a probability of impending collision. This novel phenomenon may be unique only to over-learned tasks such as driving (even simulated). These findings present additional evidence in favour of an embodied account of attention.

Acknowledgements: NSERC, Canada Foundation for Innovation