Several major cognitive neuroscience models have posited that focal spatial attention is required to integrate different features of an object to form a coherent perception of it within a complex visual scene. Although many behavioral studies have supported this view, some have suggested that complex perceptual discrimination can be performed even with substantially reduced focal spatial attention, calling into question the complexity of object representation that can be achieved without focused spatial attention. In the present study, we took a cognitive neuroscience approach to this problem by recording cognition-related brain activity both to help resolve the questions about the role of focal spatial attention in object categorization processes and to investigate the underlying neural mechanisms, focusing particularly on the temporal cascade of these attentional and perceptual processes in visual cortex. More specifically, we recorded electrical brain activity in humans engaged in a specially designed cued visual search paradigm to probe the object-related visual processing before and during the transition from distributed to focal spatial attention. The onset times of the color popout cueing information, indicating where within an object array the subject was to shift attention, was parametrically varied relative to the presentation of the array (i.e., either occurring simultaneously or being delayed by 50 or 100 msec). The electrophysiological results demonstrate that some levels of object-specific representation can be formed in parallel for multiple items across the visual field under spatially distributed attention, before focal spatial attention is allocated to any of them. The object discrimination process appears to be subsequently amplified as soon as focal spatial attention is directed to a specific location and object. This set of novel neurophysiological findings thus provides important new insights on fundamental issues that have been long-debated in cognitive neuroscience concerning both object-related processing and the role of attention.

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