EEG precursors of detected and missed targets during free-viewing search

J.C. Dias, Paul Sajda, Jacek Dmochowski, L. Parra

When scanning a scene, the target of our search may be in plain sight and yet remain unperceived. Conversely, at other times the target may be perceived in the periphery prior to fixation. There is ample behavioral and neurophysiological evidence to suggest that in some constrained visual-search tasks, targets are detected prior to fixational eye movements. However, limited human data are available during unconstrained search to determine the time course of detection, the brain areas involved, and the neural correlates of failures to detect a foveated target. Here, we recorded and analyzed electroencephalographic (EEG) activity during free-viewing visual search, varying the task difficulty to compare neural signatures for detected and unreported (“missed”) targets. When carefully controlled to remove eye-movement-related potentials, saccade-locked EEG shows that: (a) “Easy” targets may be detected as early as 150 ms prior to foveation, as indicated by a premotor potential associated with a button response; (b) object-discriminating occipital activity emerges during the saccade to target; and (c) success and failures to detect a target are accompanied by a modulation in alpha-band power over fronto-central areas as well as altered saccade dynamics. Taken together, these data suggest that target detection during free viewing can begin prior to and continue during a saccade, with failure or success in reporting a target possibly resulting from inhibition or activation of fronto-central processing areas associated with saccade control.

Available Online doi:10.1167/13.13.13
Accepted 1 November 2013
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