Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Working Memory Capacity Accounts for the Ability to Switch between Object-Based and Location-Based Allocation of Visual Attention

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Working Memory Capacity Accounts for the Ability to Switch between Object-Based and Location-Based Allocation of Visual Attention

Article excerpt

Published online: 25 November 2014

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract Bleckley, Durso, Crutchfield, Engle, and Khanna (Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 10,884-889, 2003)found that visual attention allocation differed between groups high or low in working memory capacity (WMC). High-span, but not low-span, subjects showed an invalid-cue cost during a letter localization task in which the letter appeared closer to fixation than the cue, but not when the letter appeared farther from fixation than the cue. This suggests that low-spans allocated attention as a spotlight, whereas high-spans allocated their attention to objects. In this study, we tested whether utilizing object-based visual attention is a resource-limited process that is difficult for low-span individuals. In the first experiment, we tested the uses of object versus location-based attention with high and low-span subjects, with half of the subjects completing a demanding secondary load task. Under load, high-spans were no longer able to use object-based visual attention. A second experiment supported the hypothesis that these differences in allocation were due to high-spans using object-based allocation, whereas low-spans used location-based allocation.

Keywords Working memory . Attention

For some time now, there has been a debate in the literature about the nature of visual attention allocation. Do people allocate their attention to objects or to locations? Several studies have shown that the nature of the task itself can change whether people tend to use an object-based-rather than location-based-allocation of visual attention (Baylis & Driver, 1993; Bleckley, Durso, Crutchfield, Engle, & Khanna, 2003; Egly, Driver, & Rafal, 1994; Vecera & Farah, 1994). Intuitively, this finding makes sense: In some cases, objectbased visual attention is a more effective strategy than location-based attention, and in other cases it may not be. But does the nature of the task alone affect the ability to switch from location-based to object-based visual attention, or might individual differences in attention control capabilities associated with working memory capacity (WMC) also account for this ability? That is the question that we ask here.

Two theories of cued visual attention currently dominate the field: location-or spotlight-based and object-based visual attention. A spotlight of attention is just as the name suggests: People focus on a single point and attend to information in a ring around that point, like the light of a flashlight. The highest resolution of attention then comes from information closest to the center of the spotlight of attention, with lower resolution of attention farther from the center (Arrington, Carr, Mayer, & Rao, 2000; LaBerge, 1983; LaBerge & Brown, 1989; Posner, Snyder, & Davidson, 1980). However, others argue that cued visual attention does not work as a spotlight, and is instead based on expectations of the appearance within a shape or object-such as a square or a ring (Bleckley et al., 2003; Egly & Homa, 1984; Jefferies, Enns, & Di Lollo, 2014;Neisser&Becklen,1975).

Some research has demonstrated that people can switch between object-based and location-based attention when the need arises (Baylis & Driver, 1993;Eglyetal.,1994; Vecera &Farah,1994). More specifically, forming and maintaining the representation of a shape or object is attention-demanding (Luck & Hillyard, 2000). As a result, if subjects do not need to represent stimuli as objects to perform the task, there is no need to encode the stimuli in these relatively high-level- attention-demanding-visual representations (Vecera & Farah, 1994). Similarly, whether attention is allocated to an object or a location can depend on the task demands and the consequences of the coding that follows those demands (Baylis & Driver, 1993). In summary, utilizing an objectbased allocation of visual attention might require available cognitive resources-such as working memory capacity. …

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