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Monica Rosenberg, Sarah Noonan, Joseph DeGutis, Michael Esterman; Sustaining visual attention in the face of distraction: A novel gradual onset continuous performance task. Journal of Vision 2011;11(11):127. doi: 10.1167/11.11.127.
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Sustained visual attention, a fundamental operation that underlies complex processes such as selective attention and visual memory, has classically been studied using continuous performance tasks (CPTs) that require participants to respond (or withhold response) to rare targets in a repetitive stimulus stream. CPTs, however, do not typically elicit vigilance decrements (decreased performance over time), indicating that they are not adequate measures of sustained attention. This could be because CPTs have abrupt stimulus onsets, which may act as exogenous attentional cues and keep individuals on-task. To create a better measure of sustained visual attention and examine the interaction between sustained visual attention and visual distraction, the current study employs a novel variant of the CPT, the gradual onset CPT (GO-CPT). In the GO-CPT, a central face stimulus transitions between individuals at a constant rate (1200 ms). In the distractor-present condition, faces are superimposed on background scenes, while in the distractor-absent condition, on scrambled backgrounds. Subjects are instructed to respond to each male face but not to a rare target female (10% of trials). Results from healthy college students show significant vigilance decrements over the task's 12-minute duration: participants make more commission and omission errors and show increasingly variable response latencies over time. Further validating this task as a measure of sustained attention and distraction is the correlation between performance and self-reported mindfulness, or ability to attend to a present task. In the presence of scenes, participants who self-rate as having low mindfulness make more errors, are more variable, and show greater decrements over time than their high-mindful counterparts, indicating a disproportionate effect of distraction on those with a high propensity to experience attention lapses. The GO-CPT is an improved method for studying sustained visual attention and its relationship to distraction and is a potentially useful tool for assessing individual differences in attention.
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