Independent effects of statistical learning and top-down attention

Ya Gao*, Jan Theeuwes

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


It is well known that spatial attention can be directed in a top-down way to task-relevant locations in space. In addition, through visual statistical learning (VSL), attention can be biased towards relevant (target) locations and away from irrelevant (distractor) locations. The present study investigates the interaction between the explicit task-relevant, top-down attention and the lingering attentional biases due to VSL. We wanted to determine the contribution of each of these two processes to attentional selection. In the current study, participants performed a search task while keeping a location in spatial working memory. In Experiment 1, the target appeared more often in one location, and appeared less often in other location. In Experiment 2, a color singleton distractor was presented more often in location than in all other locations. The results show that when the search target matched the location that was kept in working memory, participants were much faster at responding to the search target than when it did not match, signifying top-down attentional selection. Independent of this top-down effect, we found a clear effect of VSL as responses were even faster when target (Experiment 1) or the distractor (Experiment 2) was presented at a more likely location in visual field. We conclude that attentional selection is driven by implicit biases due to statistical learning and by explicit top-down processing, each process individually and independently modulating the neural activity within the spatial priority map.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3895-3906
Number of pages12
JournalAttention, Perception, and Psychophysics
Issue number8
Early online date9 Sep 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2020


  • Attentional capture
  • Statistical regularities
  • Top-down attention
  • Visual search
  • Working memory


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