Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Recent studies have generated debate regarding whether reflexive attention mechanisms are triggered in a purely automatic stimulus-driven manner. Behavioral studies have found that a nonpredictive “cue” stimulus will speed manual responses to subsequent targets at the same location, but only if that cue is congruent with actively maintained top-down settings for target detection. When a cue is incongruent with top-down settings, response times are unaffected, and this has been taken as evidence that reflexive attention mechanisms were never engaged in those conditions. However, manual response times may mask effects on earlier stages of processing. Here, we used event-related potentials to investigate the interaction of bottom-up sensory-driven mechanisms and top-down control settings at multiple stages of processing in the brain. Our results dissociate sensory-driven mechanisms that automatically bias early stages of visual processing from later mechanisms that are contingent on top-down control. An early enhancement of target processing in the extrastriate visual cortex (i.e., the P1 component) was triggered by the appearance of a unique bright cue, regardless of top-down settings. The enhancement of visual processing was prolonged, however, when the cue was congruent with top-down settings. Later processing in posterior temporal-parietal regions (i.e., the ipsilateral invalid negativity) was triggered automatically when the cue consisted of the abrupt appearance of a single new object. However, in cases where more than a single object appeared during the cue display, this stage of processing was contingent on top-down control. These findings provide evidence that visual information processing is biased at multiple levels in the brain, and the results distinguish automatically triggered sensory-driven mechanisms from those that are contingent on top-down control settings.