A growing literature suggests that the attention allocation system is flexible, in the sense that it can be selectively configured to respond to stimuli carrying task-relevant properties. According to this notion, task-goals are manifested in top-down attentional control settings, and stimuli that match these control settings elicit involuntary shifts of spatial attention (i.e., attentional “capture”). An important goal in modeling this allocation system is to determine the kinds of stimulus properties for which the system can be set. In this talk, I will review early research suggesting that top-down control settings can be established for specific feature properties (e.g., the color red), as well as spatial discontinuities in general (e.g., a “singleton”). I will then present recent studies from my laboratory suggesting that the system can also be set for singletons within a particular feature dimension (e.g., a color singleton), as well as for purely conceptual properties such as category membership and schemas. Together, the results suggest a highly flexible control system that can access different levels of representation.
Charles Folk is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Cognitive Science Program at Villanova University in the United States. He obtained his PhD degree in 1987 from the Johns Hopkins University where he worked with Professor Howard Egeth on the deployment of attention in visual search. Since then, he has made significant contributions to the development of attentional theory and, along with Roger Remington and James Johnston, developed the theory of Contingent Attentional Capture. His continued empirical investigations into contingent capture have overturned the once dominant view that attention is involuntarily allocated to highly salient stimuli (e.g., abrupt onses), regardless of intention. His work has shown instead that task goals exert a strong modulating influence on capture by salient features. Capture by a salient abrupt onset, for example, will be observed if the goal is to rapidly identify an abruptly onset target, but not when the task is to identify the target with a unique colour. This notion of "conditional automaticity" represented a whole new way of thinking about attentional control, suggesting that attention allocation involves an interplay between bottom- up salience and top-down control settings. The work has served as the basis for many subsequent studies in laboratories around the world. Professor Folk has gone on (in collaboration with Remington) to elucidate the functional architecture of top-down control, including the specificity and flexibility of attentional control settings. He (in collaboration with Egeth and Leber) has extended the notion of Contingent Attentional Capture to the temporal domain, showing that salient stimuli can capture attention in time if they match current top-down attentional control settings.