Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Working Memory Load and Distraction: Dissociable Effects of Visual Maintenance and Cognitive Control

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Working Memory Load and Distraction: Dissociable Effects of Visual Maintenance and Cognitive Control

Article excerpt

Published online: 2 August 2014

# The Author(s) 2014. This article is published with open access at

Abstract We establish a new dissociation between the roles of working memory (WM) cognitive control and visual maintenance in selective attention as measured by the efficiency of distractor rejection. The extent to which focused selective attention can prevent distraction has been shown to critically depend on the level and type of load involved in the task. High perceptual load that consumes perceptual capacity leads to reduced distractor processing, whereas high WM load that reduces WM ability to exert priority-based executive cognitive control over the task results in increased distractor processing (e.g., Lavie, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(2), 75-82, 2005). WM also serves to maintain task-relevant visual representations, and such visual maintenance is known to recruit the same sensory cortices as those involved in perception (e.g., Pasternak & Greenlee, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 6(2), 97-107, 2005). These findings led us to hypothesize that loading WM with visual maintenance would reduce visual capacity involved in perception, thus resulting in reduced distractor processing-similar to perceptual load and opposite to WM cognitive control load. Distractor processing was assessed in a response competition task, presented during the memory interval (or during encoding; Experiment 1a) of a WM task. Loading visual maintenance or encoding by increased set size for a memory sample of shapes, colors, and locations led to reduced distractor response competition effects. In contrast, loading WM cognitive control with verbal rehearsal of a random letter set led to increased distractor effects. These findings confirm load theory predictions and provide a novel functional distinction between the roles of WM maintenance and cognitive control in selective attention.

Keywords Memory:Visual workingand short-termmemory . Attention: Selective attention and memory

The extent to which selective focused attention allows people to successfully ignore irrelevant distractions is central to our understanding of attention and cognitive control. It is now well established that the ability to ignore irrelevant distrac- tions is not determined just by the intention to be focused or by the separability of the target and distractor stimuli, but also by the level and type of processing load involved in the current task (for reviews, see, e.g., Lavie, 1995, 2005, 2010;Lavie& Dalton, 2013; Lavie & Tsal, 1994).

The role of processing load in distractor processing has been proposed in Lavie's load theory (e.g., Lavie, 1995; Lavie, Hirst, De Fockert, & Viding, 2004), which applied a capacity approach to selective attention, while taking into account the role of priority-based working memory (WM) control (for reviews, see Lavie, 2000, 2012). According to this approach, perception has limited capacity, but capacity has to be allocated to the full to the processing of all stimuli within these limits. Cognitive control over information pro- cessing is limited to prioritization of relevant over irrelevant information. These processing priorities are actively main- tained in WM, so that capacity is allocated with a higher priority to the relevant information. However, if pro- cessing the relevant information does not take up all available capacity, any remaining capacity is allocated involuntarily to the processing of irrelevant information as well (in a simultaneous parallel manner). It follows, then, that the level of perceptual load in the task pro- cessing plays a critical role. Task conditions of low perceptual load-for example, detection of a single item or of one that pops out from among dissimilar items- result in distractor processing even if people attempt to ignore irrelevant distractors. Task conditions of higher perceptual load-for example, increased number of items or more complex perceptual processing demands, such as dis- criminating conjunctions of features (e. …

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