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Previous research has examined our ability to attend selectively to particular features of perceptual objects, as well as our ability to switch from attending to one type of feature to another. This is usually done in the context of anticipatory attentional-set control, comparing the neural mechanisms involved as participants prepare to attend to the same stimulus feature as on the previous trial ("task-stay" trials) with those required as participants prepare to attend to a different stimulus feature to that previously attended ("task-switch" trials). We wanted to establish how participants maintain or switch attentional set retrospectively, as they attend to features of objects held in visual short-term memory (VSTM). We found that switching, relative to maintaining attentional set retrospectively, was associated with a performance cost, which can be reduced over time. This control process was mirrored by a large parietal and frontal amplitude difference in the event-related brain potentials (ERPs) and significant differences in global field power (GFP) between switch and stay trials. However, when taking into account the switch/stay GFP differences, thereby controlling for this difference in amplitude, we could not distinguish these trial types topographically. By contrast, we found clear topographic differences between preparing an anticipatory feature-based attentional set versus applying it retrospectively within VSTM. These complementary topographical and amplitude analyses suggested that anticipatory and retrospective set control recruited a qualitatively different configuration of underlying neural generators. In contrast, switch/stay differences were largely quantitative, with them differing primarily in terms of amplitude rather than topography.

Original publication




Journal article


PLoS One

Publication Date





Adult, Attention, Electroencephalography, Evoked Potentials, Female, Humans, Male, Memory, Short-Term, Pattern Recognition, Visual, Psychomotor Performance, Reaction Time, Time Factors