Separable Mechanisms Underlying Global Feature-Based Attention
Feature-based attention is known to operate in a spatially global manner, in that the selection of attended features is not bound to the spatial focus of attention. Here we used electromagnetic recordings in human observers to characterize the spatiotemporal signature of such global selection of an orientation feature. Observers performed a simple orientation-discrimination task while ignoring task-irrelevant orientation probes outside the focus of attention. We observed that global feature-based selection, indexed by the brain response to unattended orientation probes, is composed of separable functional components. One such component reflects global selection based on the similarity of the probe with task-relevant orientation values (“template matching”), which is followed by a component reflecting selection based on the similarity of the probe with the orientation value under discrimination in the focus of attention (“discrimination matching”). Importantly, template matching occurs at ∼150 ms after stimulus onset, ∼80 ms before the onset of discrimination matching. Moreover, source activity underlying template matching and discrimination matching was found to originate from ventral extrastriate cortex, with the former being generated in more anterolateral and the latter in more posteromedial parts, suggesting template matching to occur in visual cortex higher up in the visual processing hierarchy than discrimination matching. We take these observations to indicate that the population-level signature of global feature-based selection reflects a sequence of hierarchically ordered operations in extrastriate visual cortex, in which the selection based on task relevance has temporal priority over the selection based on the sensory similarity between input representations.