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Keywords:

  • Saccadic eye movements;
  • prosaccades;
  • antisaccades;
  • attention shifts;
  • neural competition

This paper presents a review and summary of experimental findings on the role of attention in the preparation of saccadic eye movements. The focus is on experiments where performance of prosaccades (saccades towards a suddenly appearing item) and antisaccades (saccades of equal amplitude in the direction opposite to where the target moved) is compared. Evidence suggests that these two opposite responses to the same stimulus event entail competition between neural pathways that generate reflexive movements to the target and neural mechanisms involved in inhibiting the reflex and generating a voluntary gaze shift in the opposite direction to the target appearance. Evidence for such a competition account is discussed in light of a large amount of experimental findings and the overall picture clearly indicates that this competition account has great explanatory power when data on saccadic reaction times and error rates are compared for the two types of saccade. The role of attention is also discussed in particular in light of the finding that the withdrawal of attention by a secondary task 200 to 500 ms before the saccade target appears, leads to speeded antisaccades (without a similar increase in error rates), showing that the results do not simply reflect a speed-accuracy trade-off. This result indicates that the tendency for “reflexive” prosaccades is diminished when attention is engaged in a different task. Furthermore, experiments are discussed that show that as the tendency for a reflexive prosaccade is weakened, antisaccades are speeded up, further supporting the competition account of pro- and antisaccade generation. In the light of evidence from neurophysiology of monkeys and humans, a tentative model of pro- and antisaccade generation is proposed.