People are slow to react to objects that appear at recently attended locations. This delay—known as inhibition of return (IOR)—is believed to aid search of the visual environment by discouraging inspection of recently inspected objects. However, after two decades of research, there is no evidence that IOR reflects an inhibition in the covert deployment of attention. Here, observers participated in a modified visual-search task that enabled us to measure IOR and an ERP component called the posterior contralateral N2 (N2pc) that reflects the covert deployment of attention. The N2pc was smaller when a target appeared at a recently attended location than when it appeared at a recently unattended location. This reduction was due to modulation of neural processing in the visual cortex and the right parietal lobe. Importantly, there was no evidence for a delay in the N2pc. We conclude that in our task, the inhibitory processes underlying IOR reduce the probability of shifting attention to recently attended locations but do not delay the covert deployment of attention itself.

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