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Visual selective attention is the brain function that modulates ongoing processing of retinal input in order for selected representations to gain privileged access to perceptual awareness and guide behavior. Enhanced analysis of currently relevant or otherwise salient information is often accompanied by suppressed processing of the less relevant or salient input. Recent findings indicate that rewards exert a powerful influence on the deployment of visual selective attention. Such influence takes different forms depending on the specific protocol adopted in the given study. In some cases, the prospect of earning a larger reward in relation to a specific stimulus or location biases attention accordingly in order to maximize overall gain. This is mediated by an effect of reward acting as a type of incentive motivation for the strategic control of attention. In contrast, reward delivery can directly alter the processing of specific stimuli by increasing their attentional priority, and this can be measured even when rewards are no longer involved, reflecting a form of reward-mediated attentional learning. As a further development, recent work demonstrates that rewards can affect attentional learning in dissociable ways depending on whether rewards are perceived as feedback on performance or instead are registered as random-like events occurring during task performance. Specifically, it appears that visual selective attention is shaped by two distinct reward-related learning mechanisms: one requiring active monitoring of performance and outcome, and a second one detecting the sheer association between objects in the environment (whether attended or ignored) and the more-or-less rewarding events that accompany them. Overall this emerging literature demonstrates unequivocally that rewards "teach" visual selective attention so that processing resources will be allocated to objects, features and locations which are likely to optimize the organism's interaction with the surrounding environment and maximize positive outcome. Copyright © 2012 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.


Leonardo Chelazzi, Andrea Perlato, Elisa Santandrea, Chiara Della Libera. Rewards teach visual selective attention. Vision research. 2013 Jun 7;85:58-72

PMID: 23262054

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