Exogenous attention is a set of mechanisms that allow us to detect and reorient toward salient events—such as appetitive or aversive—that appear out of the current focus of attention. The nature of these mechanisms, particularly the involvement of the parvocellular and magnocellular visual processing systems, was explored. Thirty-four participants performed a demanding digit categorization task while salient (spiders or S) and neutral (wheels or W) stimuli were presented as distractors under two figure–ground formats: heterochromatic/isoluminant (exclusively processed by the parvocellular system, Par trials) and isochromatic/heteroluminant (preferentially processed by the magnocellular system, Mag trials). This resulted in four conditions: SPar, SMag, WPar, and WMag. Behavioral (RTs and error rates in the task) and electrophysiological (ERPs) indices of exogenous attention were analyzed. Behavior showed greater attentional capture by SMag than by SPar distractors and enhanced modulation of SMag capture as fear of spiders reported by participants increased. ERPs reflected a sequence from magnocellular dominant (P1p, ≃120 msec) to both magnocellular and parvocellular processing (N2p and P2a, ≃200 msec). Importantly, amplitudes in one N2p subcomponent were greater to SMag than to SPar and WMag distractors, indicating greater magnocellular sensitivity to saliency. Taking together, results support a magnocellular bias in exogenous attention toward distractors of any nature during initial processing, a bias that remains in later stages when biologically salient distractors are present.

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