N1 to Distractor Tones is Affected by Tone Salience and Primary Task Difficulty

Andrea Perez-Munoz, Patrick L. Woody, James W. Rogers, Jamonte Wilson, Jeffrey J. Sable


Attention exists on a balance between available cognitive resources and a need to remain repoonsive to non-task related information. Therefore, the limited capacity of attention is automatically selective in that it is a function of both the nature of the distracting stimulus and an individual's focal task engagement. Based on previous research suggesting a tug-of-war between automatic and selective attention, we manipulated selective attention by engaging participants in an 1-back (easy) or 3-back (difficult) memory task. Automatic attention (salience of distractor stimuli) was manipulated by presenting 5-tone trains that either remained constant ("same") or varied in pitch ("different") through the train. For each of the four conditions, we examined the N1 component of the event-related brain potential (ERP)-an automatic response elicited by stimuli even in the absence of overt attention-to each tone. We also compared participant performance (accuracy and response time) among conditions. We hypothesized that N1 amplitudes would attenuate less across tones in the "different" trains than the "same" ones. Additionally, we hpothesized that "different" trains would be more distracting than "same" trains, producing a decrease in performance. Furthermore, we predicted that N1s would be smaller during the difficult task than the easy one because more attentional resources would be required by the more challenging task. As predicted, N1 amplitudes were larger to "different" trains than to "same" trains. This difference was greater in the 1-back than in the 3-back condition, and became larger to later tones in the trains. In addition to performance being better on the 1-back task than on the 3-back task, accuracy was also better during the "same" trains than during the "different" trains. In contract to our prediction, N1s were larger during the difficult task than the easy task.


ERP; Attention; Distractibility

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