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Keywords:

  • auditory;
  • ERPs;
  • human;
  • visual

Abstract

Within the visual modality, it has been shown that attention to a single visual feature of an object such as speed of motion, results in an automatic transfer of attention to other task-irrelevant features (e.g. colour). An extension of this logic might lead one to predict that such mechanisms also operate across sensory systems. But, connectivity patterns between feature modules across sensory systems are thought to be sparser to those within a given sensory system, where interareal connectivity is extensive. It is not clear that transfer of attention between sensory systems will operate as it does within a sensory system. Using high-density electrical mapping of the event-related potential (ERP) in humans, we tested whether attending to objects in one sensory modality resulted in the preferential processing of that object's features within another task-irrelevant sensory modality. Clear evidence for cross-sensory attention effects was seen, such that for multisensory stimuli responses to ignored task-irrelevant information in the auditory and visual domains were selectively enhanced when they were features of the explicitly attended object presented in the attended sensory modality. We conclude that attending to an object within one sensory modality results in coactivation of that object's representations in ignored sensory modalities. The data further suggest that transfer of attention from visual-to-auditory features operates in a fundamentally different manner than transfer from auditory-to-visual features, and indicate that visual-object representations have a greater influence on their auditory counterparts than vice-versa. These data are discussed in terms of ‘priming’ vs. ‘spreading’ accounts of attentional transfer.