Stress and perceptual load affect selective attention in a paradoxical manner. They can facilitate selectivity or disrupt it. This EEG study was designed to examine the reciprocal relations between stress, load and attention. Two groups of subjects, one that performed the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), and a control group, were asked to respond to a target letter under low and high perceptual load in the absence or presence of a distractor. In the control group, the distractor increased response times (RTs) for high and low load. In the TSST group, distractor increased RTs under low load only. ERPs showed that distractor's presentation attenuated early visual P1 component and shortened its latency. In the TSST group, distractor reduced P1 component under high load but did not affect its latency. Source localization demonstrated reduced activation in V1 in response to distractors presence in the P1 time window for the TSST group compared to the control group. A behavioral replication revealed that in the TSST group distractors were less perceived under high load. Taken together, our results show that stress and perceptual load affect selectivity through the early stages of visual processing and might increase selectivity in a manner that would block conscious perception of irrelevant stimuli.
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