Beta and theta oscillations differentially support free versus forced control over multiple-target search

Joram van Driel, Eduard Ort, Johannes J. Fahrenfort, Christian N.L. Olivers*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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Many important situations require human observers to simultaneously search for more than one object. Despite a long history of research into visual search, the behavioral and neural mechanisms associated with multiple-target search are poorly understood. Here we test the novel theory that the efficiency of looking for multiple targets critically depends on the mode of cognitive control the environment affords to the observer. We used an innovative combination of electroencephalogram (EEG) and eye tracking while participants searched for two targets, within two different contexts: either both targets were present in the search display and observers were free to prioritize either one of them, thus enabling proactive control over selection; or only one of the two targets would be present in each search display, which requires reactive control to reconfigure selection when the wrong target has been prioritized. During proactive control, both univariate and multivariate signals of beta-band (15–35 Hz) power suppression before display onset predicted switches between target selections. This signal originated over midfrontal and sensorimotor regions and has previously been associated with endogenous state changes. In contrast, imposed target selections requiring reactive control elicited prefrontal power enhancements in the delta/theta band (2– 8 Hz), but only after display onset. This signal predicted individual differences in associated oculomotor switch costs, reflecting reactive reconfiguration of target selection. The results provide compelling evidence that multiple target representations are differentially prioritized during visual search, and for the first time reveal distinct neural mechanisms underlying proactive and reactive control over multiple-target search.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1733-1743
Number of pages11
JournalThe Journal of Neuroscience
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 27 Feb 2019


  • Beta band
  • Cognitive control
  • Medial frontal cortex
  • Priority states
  • Theta band
  • Visual search


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