Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Guidance of Attention by Information Held in Working Memory

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Guidance of Attention by Information Held in Working Memory

Article excerpt

Published online: 13 February 2013

© The Author(s) 2013. This article is published with open access at

Abstract Information held in working memory (WM) can guide attention during visual search. The authors of recent studies have interpreted the effect of holding verbal labels in WM as guidance of visual attention by semantic information. In a series of experiments, we tested how attention is influenced by visual features versus category-level information about complex objects held in WM. Participants either memorized an object's image or its category. While holding this information in memory, they searched for a target in a four-object search display. On exact-match trials, the memorized item reappeared as a distractor in the search display. On category-match trials, another exemplar of the memorized item appeared as a distractor. On neutral trials, none of the distractors were related to the memorized object. We found attentional guidance in visual search on both exact-match and category-match trials in Experiment 1, in which the exemplars were visually similar. When we controlled for visual similarity among the exemplars by using four possible exemplars (Exp. 2) or by using two exemplars rated as being visually dissimilar (Exp. 3), we found attentional guidance only on exact-match trials when participants memorized the object's image. The same pattern of results held when the target was invariant (Exps. 2-3) and when the target was defined semantically and varied in visual features (Exp. 4). The findings of these experiments suggest that attentional guidance byWMrequires active visual information.

Keywords Working memory . Attentional capture . Visual search

Visual attention allows us to select relevant information and ignore distractions. The ease with which we can do this is influenced by both bottom-up (e.g., stimulus salience) and top-down (e.g., observer's goal) factors. Working memory (WM), or the ability to maintain and mentally manipulate information, is one top-down process that is important in guiding visual attention (de Fockert, Rees, Frith, & Lavie, 2001; Downing, 2000). Many models of WM conceptualize it as being composed of domain-specific subsystems that are responsible for keeping information active so that it is available for future use (Baddeley, 2001; Courtney, 2004). Two such subsystems are verbal WM-which maintains linguistic information based on either sound or speech- and visual WM-which maintains visual properties of stimuli (e.g., their color, shape, or spatial location; Baddeley, 2001).

WM and visual attention are interactive processes (see Awh, Vogel, & Oh, 2006, for a review), and the information in WM can guide the deployment of visual attention. This interaction can be beneficial or detrimental to task performance. During visual search, for example, WM is presumed to hold information about the target. According to the biased-competition model of visual attention (Desimone & Duncan, 1995), WM maintains an active template of the target and guides visual attention to any matching stimulus once search has commenced. Information held in WM can also influence attention, even when this information is unrelated to the task, as was shown in a study by Downing (2000). In that study, participants had to remember a photograph of a face while they performed a discrimination task on a probe that appeared on either the leftor the right side of the screen. The face to be remembered was shown first, followed by an irrelevant display of two faces, one new and the other the same as the memory item. A probe display followed, with the probe at the location of one of the faces. Participants were faster at responding to probes that appeared at the same location as the memory item rather than that of the new face, suggesting that information held in WM guided the deployment of visual attention.

A downside to this relationship between WM and visual attention is that active WM information that is unrelated to an ongoing task (e. …

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