Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Working Memory and the Guidance of Visual Attention: Consonance-Driven Orienting

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Working Memory and the Guidance of Visual Attention: Consonance-Driven Orienting

Article excerpt

Two experiments investigated the potential role of the content of working memory in guiding visual attention. Experiment 1 showed that maintaining a shape in working memory resulted in a decisive preference for moving attention to the same shape in the background when those shapes were task irrelevant. Experiment 2 showed a similar preference for words that were semantically related to an item held in working memory. We suggest that keeping an item active in working memory automatically results in a tendency for attention to be "attracted" to stimuli that are related to that item either visually or semantically.

The top-down control of attention has been studied extensively in experimental psychology. In the typical study, subjects are instructed to perform a task, and the instructions for this task determine what subset of the stimuli are to be considered task relevant and what subset are to be considered task irrelevant. Most often, subjects are asked to attend to stimuli satisfying some explicit criterion of selection and to ignore all other stimuli. Modern theories of attention are based largely on the results of such studies. Although this kind of research helps to illuminate the mechanisms for control of attention, it leaves some very basic issues unanswered about how attention is controlled in daily life. After all, outside of the laboratory, people often wander around lacking any explicit intention to attend to, find, or ignore anything in particular. How is attention controlled when an observer has relatively diffuse goals?

Although modern attention theory has had little to say about the spontaneous allocation of attention, some writers on attention from the beginning of the 20th century discussed it at great length. One such writer, Oswald Kulpe (1893/1909; see also Pillsbury, 1908), suggested a possible general principle of top-down control: "Impressions which repeat or resemble ideas already present in consciousness are especially liable to attract the attention" (p. 439).

Taking this idea a bit further, some have recently suggested that the activation of semantic representations-whether conscious or unconscious, whether resulting from immediate sensory inputs or from internal trains of stimulus-independent thought-may cause attention to be drawn toward any stimuli in the sensory fields that would tend themselves to activate related concepts (Moores, Laiti, & Chelazzi, 2003; Pashler & Shiu, 1999). This notion (which will be termed consonance-driven orienting) can be summarized crudely as the principle "attend to any object that is in any way related to any currently active mental contents." Such a strategy might be useful in coordinating the covert and overt deployment of attention with other ongoing mental activity and might therefore be a very primitive and widespread mechanism for top-down attention control. The principle also seems potentially congenial to a contemporary neurally inspired perspective on attention known as biased competition theory (Desimone & Duncan, 1995; Duncan, 1996).

Relevant Findings

In a test of one aspect of the notion of consonance-driven orienting, Pashler and Shiu (1999) instructed subjects to form a mental image of an object (e.g., a tiger). Subjects then viewed a rapid serial presentation of eight line drawings. The task was to search for a target digit that was interposed between the line drawings. One of these drawings depicted an object of the same category as the object just imagined (e.g., a drawing of a tiger). The presence of this item produced an "attentional blink" effect; that is, there was an impairment in the detection of a digit that followed the tiger in the sequence. The result suggests that people cannot help but attend to any object belonging to the same category as some object that they just imagined. In a similar study published soon after, Downing (2000) also showed that a replica effaces or contents presented to the subject and stored in working memory seemed to draw attention even when there was no incentive for this. …

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