Differential Effects of Endogenous and Exogenous Attention on Sensory Tuning

Antonio Fernández, Sara Okun, Marisa Carrasco

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Covert spatial attention (without concurrent eye movements) improves performance in many visual tasks (e.g., orientation discrimination and visual search). However, both covert attention systems-endogenous (voluntary) and exogenous (involuntary)-exhibit differential effects on performance in tasks mediated by spatial and temporal resolution suggesting an underlying mechanistic difference. We investigated whether these differences manifest in sensory tuning by assessing whether and how endogenous and exogenous attention differentially alter the representation of two basic visual dimensions-orientation and spatial frequency (SF). The same human observers detected a grating embedded in noise in two separate experiments (with endogenous or exogenous attention cues). Reverse correlation was used to infer the underlying neural representation from behavioral responses, and we linked our results to established neural computations via a normalization model of attention. Both endogenous and exogenous attention similarly improved performance at the attended location by enhancing the gain of all orientations without changing tuning width. In the SF dimension, endogenous attention enhanced the gain of SFs above and below the target SF, whereas exogenous attention only enhanced those above. Additionally, exogenous attention shifted peak sensitivity to SFs above the target SF, whereas endogenous attention did not. Both covert attention systems modulated sensory tuning via the same computation (gain changes). However, there were differences in the strength of the gain. Compared with endogenous attention, exogenous attention had a stronger orientation gain enhancement but a weaker overall SF gain enhancement. These differences in sensory tuning may underlie differential effects of endogenous and exogenous attention on performance. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Covert spatial attention is a fundamental aspect of cognition and perception that allows us to selectively process and prioritize incoming visual information at a given location. There are two types: endogenous (voluntary) and exogenous (involuntary). Both typically improve visual perception, but there are instances where endogenous improves perception but exogenous hinders perception. Whether and how such differences extend to sensory representations is unknown. Here we show that both endogenous and exogenous attention mediate perception via the same neural computation-gain changes-but the strength of the orientation gain and the range of enhanced spatial frequencies depends on the type of attention being deployed. These findings reveal that both attention systems differentially reshape the tuning of features coded in striate cortex.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1316-1327
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number7
StatePublished - Feb 16 2022


  • endogenous attention
  • exogenous attention
  • r correlation
  • sensory tuning
  • spatial vision
  • Visual Perception/physiology
  • Humans
  • Brain/physiology
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Male
  • Attention/physiology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine


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