Abstract

Theories of visual selective attention propose that top–down preparatory attention signals mediate the selection of task-relevant information in cluttered scenes. Neuroimaging and electrophysiology studies have provided correlative evidence for this hypothesis, finding increased activity in target-selective neural populations in visual cortex in the period between a search cue and target onset. In this study, we used online TMS to test whether preparatory neural activity in visual cortex is causally involved in naturalistic object detection. In two experiments, participants detected the presence of object categories (cars, people) in a diverse set of photographs of real-world scenes. TMS was applied over a region in posterior temporal cortex identified by fMRI as carrying category-specific preparatory activity patterns. Results showed that TMS applied over posterior temporal cortex before scene onset (−200 and −100 msec) impaired the detection of object categories in subsequently presented scenes, relative to vertex and early visual cortex stimulation. This effect was specific to category level detection and was related to the type of attentional template participants adopted, with the strongest effects observed in participants adopting category level templates. These results provide evidence for a causal role of preparatory attention in mediating the detection of objects in cluttered daily-life environments.

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