Exogenous attention enhances 2nd-order contrast sensitivity

Antoine Barbot, Michael S. Landy, Marisa Carrasco

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Natural scenes contain a rich variety of contours that the visual system extracts to segregate the retinal image into perceptually coherent regions. Covert spatial attention helps extract contours by enhancing contrast sensitivity for 1st-order, luminance-defined patterns at attended locations, while reducing sensitivity at unattended locations, relative to neutral attention allocation. However, humans are also sensitive to 2nd-order patterns such as spatial variations of texture, which are predominant in natural scenes and cannot be detected by linear mechanisms. We assess whether and how exogenous attention-the involuntary and transient capture of spatial attention-affects the contrast sensitivity of channels sensitive to 2nd-order, texture-defined patterns. Using 2nd-order, texture-defined stimuli, we demonstrate that exogenous attention increases 2nd-order contrast sensitivity at the attended location, while decreasing it at unattended locations, relative to a neutral condition. By manipulating both 1st- and 2nd-order spatial frequency, we find that the effects of attention depend both on 2nd-order spatial frequency of the stimulus and the observer's 2nd-order spatial resolution at the target location. At parafoveal locations, attention enhances 2nd-order contrast sensitivity to high, but not to low 2nd-order spatial frequencies; at peripheral locations attention also enhances sensitivity to low 2nd-order spatial frequencies. Control experiments rule out the possibility that these effects might be due to an increase in contrast sensitivity at the 1st-order stage of visual processing. Thus, exogenous attention affects 2nd-order contrast sensitivity at both attended and unattended locations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1086-1098
Number of pages13
JournalVision research
Issue number9
StatePublished - May 11 2011


  • Attention
  • Contrast sensitivity
  • Second-order processing
  • Texture

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ophthalmology
  • Sensory Systems


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