The Orienting Response

Orienting refers to the movement of the head and eyes to foveate a target of interest. Bringing the most sensitive region of the retina to a target of interest improves the visual processing of that target. Covert orienting refers to attentional orienting (the movement of the mind's eye), which may occur in the absence of an overt orienting response. When a subject is alert, orienting responses are more rapid. Orienting is so fundamental to information processing that it might be regarded as a manifestation of alertness, with no possibility of making an operational distinction between the state of alertness and the orienting response. Alternatively, the orienting response might be improved by increased alertness in the same way that vigilance performance is improved by increased alertness, although neither one is synonymous with alertness. This is perhaps most obvious when one considers disorders of consciousness in which there may be evidence of visual tracking and smooth pursuit eye movements in a subject who is otherwise unresponsive. The patient is unconscious but is regarded as alert solely because of the presence of such orienting responses.

Thus, alertness is defined here as a general state of cognitive readiness, reflected in cortical arousal. It is distinct from physiological arousal and from the demanding and costly processes of vigilance and phasic motor readiness. The processes are related in that high arousal may be accompanied by increases in alertness and increased overall alertness will benefit specific cognitive functions, including vigilance performance.

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