Distracting stimuli in the environment can pull our attention away from our goal-directed tasks. fMRI studies have implicated regions in right frontal cortex as being particularly important for processing distractors [e.g., de Fockert, J. W., & Theeuwes, J. Role of frontal cortex in attentional capture by singleton distractors. Brain and Cognition, 80, 367–373, 2012; Demeter, E., Hernandez-Garcia, L., Sarter, M., & Lustig, C. Challenges to attention: A continuous arterial spin labeling (ASL) study of the effects of distraction on sustained attention. Neuroimage, 54, 1518–1529, 2011]. Less is known, however, about the timing and sequence of how right frontal or other brain regions respond selectively to distractors and how distractors impinge upon the cascade of processes related to detecting and processing behaviorally relevant target stimuli. Here we used EEG and ERPs to investigate the neural consequences of a perceptually salient but task-irrelevant distractor on the detection of rare target stimuli embedded in a rapid, serial visual presentation (RSVP) stream. We found that distractors that occur during the presentation of a target interfere behaviorally with detection of those targets, reflected by reduced detection rates, and that these missed targets show a reduced amplitude of the long-latency, detection-related P3 component. We also found that distractors elicited a right-lateralized frontal negativity beginning at 100 msec, whose amplitude negatively correlated across participants with their distraction-related behavioral impairment. Finally, we also quantified the instantaneous amplitude of the steady-state visual evoked potentials elicited by the RSVP stream and found that the occurrence of a distractor resulted in a transient amplitude decrement of the steady-state visual evoked potential, presumably reflecting the pull of attention away from the RSVP stream when distracting stimuli occur in the environment.

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