Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Because the human visual system is continually being bombarded with inputs, it is necessary to have effective mechanisms for filtering out irrelevant information. This is partly achieved by the allocation of attention, allowing the visual system to process relevant input while blocking out irrelevant input. What is the physiological substrate of attentional allocation? It has been proposed that alpha activity reflects functional inhibition. Here we asked if inhibition by alpha oscillations has behavioral consequences for suppressing the perception of unattended input. To this end, we investigated the influence of alpha activity on motion processing in two attentional conditions using magneto-encephalography. The visual stimuli used consisted of two random-dot kinematograms presented simultaneously to the left and right visual hemifields. Subjects were cued to covertly attend the left or right kinematogram. After 1.5 sec, a second cue tested whether subjects could report the direction of coherent motion in the attended (80%) or unattended hemifield (20%). Occipital alpha power was higher contralateral to the unattended side than to the attended side, thus suggesting inhibition of the unattended hemifield. Our key finding is that this alpha lateralization in the 20% invalidly cued trials did correlate with the perception of motion direction: Subjects with pronounced alpha lateralization were worse at detecting motion direction in the unattended hemifield. In contrast, lateralization did not correlate with visual discrimination in the attended visual hemifield. Our findings emphasize the suppressive nature of alpha oscillations and suggest that processing of inputs outside the field of attention is weakened by means of increased alpha activity.