, Volume 78, Issue 3, pp 339-348
Date: 04 Aug 2013

Sensory ERP effects in auditory distraction: did we miss the main event?

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Event-related potentials (ERPs) offer unique insights into processes related to involuntary attention changes triggered by rare, unpredictably occurring sensory events, that is, distraction. Contrasting ERPs elicited by distracters and frequent standard stimuli in oddball paradigms allowed the formulation of a three-stage model describing distraction-related processing: first, the distracting event is highlighted by a sensory filter. Second, attention is oriented towards the event, and finally, the task-optimal attention set is restored, or task priorities are changed. Although this model summarizes how distracting stimulus information is processed, not much is known about the cost of taking this exceptional route of processing. The present study demonstrates the impact of distraction on sensory processing. Participants performed a Go/NoGo tone-duration discrimination task, with infrequent pitch distracters. In the two parts of the experiment the duration-response mapping was reversed. Contrasts of distracter and standard ERPs revealed higher P3a- and reorienting negativity amplitudes for short than for long tones, independently from response type. To understand the cause of these asymmetries, short vs. long ERP contrasts were calculated. The ERP pattern showed that short standards elicited an attention-dependent offset response, which was abolished for short distracters. That is, the apparent P3a- and RON enhancements were caused by the removal of a task-related attentional sensory enhancement. This shows that the disruption of task-optimal attention set precedes the elicitation of the P3a, which suggests that P3a does not reflect a process driving the initial distraction-related attention change.