Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
The ability to attend to an input selectively while ignoring distracting sensations is thought to depend on the coordination of two processes: enhancement of target signals and attenuation of distractor signals. This implies that attending and ignoring may be dissociable neural processes and that they make separable contributions to behavioral outcomes of attention. In this study, we tested these hypotheses in the context of sustained attention by measuring neurophysiological responses to attended and ignored stimuli in a noncued, continuous, audiovisual selective attention task. We compared these against responses during a passive control to quantify effects of attending and ignoring separately. In both sensory modalities, responses to ignored stimuli were attenuated relative to a passive control, whereas responses to attended stimuli were enhanced. The scalp topographies and brain activations of these modulatory effects were consistent with the sensory regions that process each modality. They also included parietal and prefrontal activations that suggest these effects arise from interactions between top–down and sensory cortices. Most importantly, we found that both attending and ignoring processes contributed to task accuracy and that these effects were not correlated—suggesting unique neural trajectories. This conclusion was supported by the novel observation that attending and ignoring differed in timing and in active cortical regions. The data provide direct evidence for the separable contributions of attending and ignoring to behavioral outcomes of attention control during sustained intersensory attention.