Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Spatial and Visuospatial Working Memory Tests Predict Performance in Classic Multiple-Object Tracking in Young Adults, but Nonspatial Measures of the Executive Do Not

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Spatial and Visuospatial Working Memory Tests Predict Performance in Classic Multiple-Object Tracking in Young Adults, but Nonspatial Measures of the Executive Do Not

Article excerpt

Published online: 11 November 2011

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2011

Abstract An individual-differences approach was used to investigate the roles of visuospatial working memory and the executive in multiple-object tracking. The Corsi Blocks and Visual Patterns Tests were used to assess visuospatial working memory. Two relatively nonspatial measures of the executive were used: operation span (OSPAN) and reading span (RSPAN). For purposes of comparison, the digit span test was also included (a measure not expected to correlate with tracking). The tests predicted substantial amounts of variance (R2 = .33), and the visuospatial measures accounted for the majority (R2 = .30), with each making a significant contribution. Although the executive measures correlated with each other, the RSPAN did not correlate with tracking. The correlation between OSPAN and tracking was similar in magnitude to that between digit span and tracking (p < .05 for both), and when regression was used to partial out shared variance between the two tests, the remaining variance predicted by the OSPAN was minimal (sr2 = .029). When measures of spatial memory were included in the regression, the unique variance predicted by the OSPAN became negligible (sr2 = .000004). This suggests that the executive, as measured by tests such as the OSPAN, plays little role in explaining individual differences in multiple-object tracking.

Keywords Attention . Visual working memory. Task switching or executive control

Multiple-object tracking (MOT) involves monitoring positions of multiple items as they move among other identical items in a visual display (Pylyshyn & Storm, 1988). There are marked individual differences in tracking performance (e.g., Allen, McGeorge, Pearson, & Milne, 2004), and the goal of this study is to determine whether measures of working memory predict these differences. This is relevant given the discussion about the role of working memory in MOT (e.g., Allen, McGeorge, Pearson, & Milne, 2006; Fougnie & Marois, 2006, 2009; Oksama & Hyönä, 2004; Zhang, Xuan, Fu, & Pylyshyn, 2010). This also has ramifications for recent work looking at a variant of the MOT task called multiple-identity tracking.

When Pylyshyn and Storm (1988) originally discussed MOT, they proposed that it relies on a spatial-indexing mechanism that operates by assigning reference tokens to a small number of items in the visual scene at once. These reference tokens individuate the selected items from distractors and from one another and monitor item locations, thus allowing these items to maintain their identities despite changes in their properties or positions. This mechanism operates before the one-area-at-a-time workings of focal spatial attention, and, in fact, it was argued that these reference tokens are a necessary prerequisite if the attentional focus is to be moved accurately from one item to the next, given that there may be many items in a scene and items move and change (see also Pylyshyn, 2001). Similarly, it was suggested that the ability to individuate and track selected items is a necessary precondition for making eye movements or touching specific items among others. Because these reference tokens are assigned shortly after edge detection and grouping (early vision) and before the operation of the attentional focus, it was assumed that they do not require higher-level processes such as working memory.

However, perhaps because MOT is a noticeably effortful and demanding task, one that requires focused concentration over a period of time, a number of researchers have questioned the idea that it is carried out by such a primitive preattentive mechanism (e.g., Scholl, 2009), and it has been suggested that limitations in the number that can be tracked at once may reflect limitations in short-term/working memory (e.g., Cowan, 2000). To resolve this issue, several studies have been carried out using the dual-task paradigm (e. …

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