On the Dependence of P300 Latency on Stimulus Evaluation Processes

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McCarthy and Donchin (1981) found that the latency of a late positive component of the event‐related potential (ERP) was influenced by the presence of noise in a stimulus matrix but not by the compatibility between the stimulus presented and the response required. They concluded that this component is a P300 and that its latency was influenced by stimulus evaluation but not by response selection processes. The present experiments were designed to confirm that the component identified by McCarthy and Donchin was indeed a P300 and to determine if its latency varies systematically with increases in stimulus evaluation time produced by graded changes in noise level.

In Experiment 1, subjects performed a standard oddball task in which they were required to count the rarer of two stimuli (the words RIGHT or LEFT) which were, or were not, embedded in a noise matrix (characters from the alphabet). The positive component of the ERP, whose amplitude was larger for rare target stimuli, was labeled a P300, and the latency of this component was longer when the stimuli were embedded in noise. In Experiment 2, subjects performed a choice reaction time task. Following the procedures used by McCarthy and Donchin, stimulus words RIGHT and LEFT required right or left hand responses depending on the presence of a cue word SAME or OPPOSITE which preceded the stimulus. Stimulus words were presented in four different degrees of noise, the levels of which were manipulated by varying the set size of the alphabetic characters which could surround the stimulus words. Reaction time increased both with noise (by 325 ms) and as a function of stimulus‐response incompatibility (by 127 ms). In contrast, P300 latency increased substantially with noise (by 200 ms) but, to a much lesser extent (by 14 ms), with response incompatibility. These results indicate that the P300 is sensitive to the ease with which a target stimulus can be discriminated from noise. They confirm that P300 latency can be used as a measure of the timing of stimulus evaluation processes that is relatively independent of response selection and execution.

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Psychophysiology, v. 21, issue 2, p. 171-186.