Propagation of information along the cortical hierarchy as a function of attention while reading and listening to stories
How does attention route information from sensory to high-order areas as a function of task, within the relatively fixed topology of the brain? In this study, participants were simultaneously presented with 2 unrelated stories—one spoken and one written—and asked to attend one while ignoring the other. We used fMRI and a novel intersubject correlation analysis to track the spread of information along the processing hierarchy as a function of task. Processing the unattended spoken (written) information was confined to auditory (visual) cortices. In contrast, attending to the spoken (written) story enhanced the stimulus-selective responses in sensory regions and allowed it to spread into higher-order areas. Surprisingly, we found that the story-specific spoken (written) responses for the attended story also reached secondary visual (auditory) regions of the unattended sensory modality. These results demonstrate how attention enhances the processing of attended input and allows it to propagate across brain areas.