Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Capture of the Gaze Does Not Capture the Mind

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Capture of the Gaze Does Not Capture the Mind

Article excerpt

Published online: 31 May 2012

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2012

Abstract Sudden visual changes attract our gaze, and related eye movement control requires attentional resources. Attention is a limited resource that is also involved in working memory-for instance, memory encoding. As a consequence, theory suggests that gaze capture could impair the buildup of memory respresentations due to an attentional resource bottleneck. Here we developed an experimental design combining a serial memory task (verbal or spatial) and concurrent gaze capture by a distractor (of high or low similarity to the relevant item). The results cannot be explained by a general resource bottleneck. Specifically, we observed that capture by the low-similar distractor resulted in delayed and reduced saccade rates to relevant items in both memory tasks. However, while spatial memory performance decreased, verbal memory remained unaffected. In contrast, the high-similar distractor led to capture and memory loss for both tasks. Our results lend support to the view that gaze capture leads to activation of irrelevant representations in working memory that compete for selection at recall. Activation of irrelevant spatial representations distracts spatial recall, whereas activation of irrelevant verbal features impairs verbal memory performance.

Keywords Attention * Memory * Cognitive eye movements * Visual working memory * Short-term memory

Oculomotor capture is a very basic mechanism (Kramer, Gonzales de Sather, & Cassavaugh, 2005; Kramer, Hahn, Irwin, & Theeuwes, 2000) triggered by changes in the environment. But different visual changes attract the gaze with varying reliability. The sudden onset of a new object captures the gaze (Theeuwes, Kramer, Hahn, & Irwin, 1998), but a sudden color change does not (Irwin, Colcombe, Kramer, & Hahn, 2000), or does so to a much smaller degree (Colcombe et al., 2003). Perceptual factors-for instance, luminance or salience (Foulsham & Underwood, 2009; Kramer et al., 2000) or the distance between distractor and target (Edelman & Xu, 2009; Walker, Deubel, Schneider, & Findlay, 1997)-modulate this effect. Importantly, capture by an irrelevant distractor occurs in less than 30 % of trials (Colcombe et al., 2003, Kramer et al., 2000), demonstrating that such capture can be controlled for in most trials. Control is preferable to capture, because capture should create costs for ongoing processing of relevant information. Our study tests this prediction in an eyetracking experiment. We chose a design implementing capture during memory encoding of verbal or spatial visual items for immediate serial recall.

A prediction of the costs of oculomotor capture can be derived from the potentially overlapping roles of visual attention in working memory models and in models of saccade generation. First, eye movement control and atten- tion are closely coupled, but the relationship is rather asym- metric. Whereas it is possible to focus on a specific location in the visual field but to attend a different location (Posner, 1980), moving the eyes to a specific location implies mov- ing attention to that location prior to the execution of the eye movement (Deubel & Schneider, 1996; Hoffman & Subramaniam, 1995; Kowler, Anderson, Dosher, & Blaser, 1995). That is, eye movements can only be executed when attention has shifted as well (Shepherd, Findlay, & Hockey, 1986). This is not only true for voluntary planned saccades -for instance, in studies in which a saccade is directed to the response target of a detection or discrimination task (Deubel & Schneider, 1996; Hoffman & Subramaniam, 1995; Kowler et al., 1995); the coupling of attentional shift and eye movements has been demonstrated for reflexive saccades, as well-for instance, when gaze is captured by an onset stimulus (Bisley & Goldberg, 2003; Peterson, Kramer, & Irwin, 2004).

Second, attention is an integral part of working memory models (e. …

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