Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2012

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Shaun P. Vecera


There is more information in the visual environment than we can process at a given time, and as a result selective attention mechanisms have developed that allow us to focus on information that is relevant to us while ignoring information that is not. It is often assumed that our ability to overcome distraction by irrelevant information in the environment requires conscious, effortful processing, and traditional theories of selective attention have emphasized the role of an observer's explicit intentions in driving this control. At the same time, effortful control on the basis of explicit processes may be maladaptive when the behaviors to be executed are complex and dynamic, as is the case with many behaviors that we carry out on a daily basis. One way to increase the efficiency of this process would be to store information regarding past experiences with a distracting stimulus, and use this information to control distraction upon future encounters with that particular stimulus. The focus of the current thesis was to examine such a "learned control" view of distraction, where experience with particular stimuli is the critical factor determining whether or not a salient stimulus will capture attention and distract us in a given situation. In Chapters 2 through 4, I established a role for task-specific learning in the ability of observers to overcome attentional capture, showing that experience with particular attributes of distracting stimuli and the context in which the task was performed led to a predictable decrease in capture. In Chapter 5, I examined the neural basis of these learned control effects, and the results suggest that neocortical and medial temporal lobe learning mechanisms both contribute to the experience-dependent modulation of attentional capture observed in Chapters 2-4. Based on these results, a model of attentional capture was proposed in which experience with particular stimulus attributes and their context critically determine the ability of salient, task-irrelevant information to capture attention and cause distraction. I conclude that although explicit processes may play some role in this process under some conditions, much of our ability to overcome distraction results directly from past experience with the visual world.


Attention, Attentional Capture, Learning, Memory, Vision, Visual Cognition


2, viii, 213 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 193-213).


Copyright 2011 Joshua Cosman