Neural correlates

Most experiments show that one neural correlate of attention is enhanced firing. If a neuron has a certain response to a stimulus when the animal is not attending to the stimulus, then when the animal does attend to the stimulus, the neuron’s response will be enhanced even if the physical characteristics of the stimulus remain the same.

In a recent review, Knudsen[9] describes a more general model which identifies four core processes of attention, with working memory at the center:

  • Working memory temporarily stores information for detailed analysis.
  • Competitive selection is the process that determines which information gains access to working memory.
  • Through top-down sensitivity control, higher cognitive processes can regulate signal intensity in information channels that compete for access to working memory, and thus give them an advantage in the process of competitive selection. Through top-down sensitivity control, the momentary content of working memory can influence the selection of new information, and thus mediate voluntary control of attention in a recurrent loop.
  • Bottom-up saliency filters automatically enhance the response to infrequent stimuli, or stimuli of instinctive or learned biological relevance.

Neurally, at different hierarchical levels spatial maps can enhance or inhibit activity in sensory areas, and induce orienting behaviors like eye movement.

  • At the top of the hierarchy, the frontal eye fields (FEF) on the dorsolateral frontal cortex contain a retinocentric spacial map. Microstimulation in the FEF induces monkeys to make a saccade to the relevant location. Stimulation at levels too low to induce a saccade will nonetheless enhance cortical responses to stimuli located in the relevant area.
  • At the next lower level, a variety of spacial maps are found in the parietal cortex. In particular, the lateral intraparietal area (LIP) contains a saliency map and is interconnected both with the FEF and with sensory areas.
  • Certain automatic responses that influence attention, like orienting to a highly salient stimulus, are mediated subcortically by the superior colliculi.
  • At the neural network level, it is thought that processes like lateral inhibition mediate the process of competitive selection.
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