Spontaneous fluctuations in the flexible control of covert attention

Anthony W. Sali, Susan M. Courtney, Steven Yantis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Spontaneous fluctuations in cognitive flexibility are characterized by moment-to-moment changes in the efficacy of control over attentional shifts. We used fMRI to investigate the neural correlates in humans of spontaneous fluctuations in readiness to covertly shift attention between two peripheral rapid serial visual presentation streams. Target detection response time (RT) after a shift or hold of covert spatial attention served as a behavioral index of fluctuations in attentional flexibility. In particular, the cost associated with shifting attention compared with holding attention varied as a function of pretrial brain activity in key regions of the default mode network (DMN), but not the dorsal attention network. High pretrial activity within the DMN was associated with a greater increase in shift trial RT relative to hold trial RT, revealing that these areas are associated with a state of attentional stability. Conversely, high pretrial activity within bilateral anterior insula and the presupplementary motor area/supplementary motor area was associated with a greater decrease in shift trial RT relative to hold trial RT, reflecting increased flexibility. Our results importantly clarify the roles of the precuneus, medial prefrontal cortex, and lateral parietal cortex, indicating that reduced activity may not simply indicate greater task engagement, but also, specifically, a readiness to update the focus of attention. Investigation of the neural correlates of spontaneous changes in attentional flexibility may contribute to our understanding of disorders of cognitive control as well as healthy variability in the control of spatial attention.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)445-454
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 13 2016


  • Attention
  • Cognitive control
  • FMRI

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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