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J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 2014 Aug;40(4):1450-64. doi: 10.1037/a0036229. Epub 2014 Apr 14.

In competition for the attentional template: can multiple items within visual working memory guide attention?

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Department of Cognitive Psychology, VU University Amsterdam.


Recent studies have revealed that the deployment of attention can be biased by the content of visual working memory (VWM), but that stored memories do not always interact with attention. This has led to a model which proposes a division within VWM between a single active template that interacts with perception and multiple accessory representations that do not. The present study was designed to study whether multiple memory representations are able to bias attention. Participants performed a visual search task while maintaining a variable number of colors in VWM. Consistent with earlier findings, we observed increased attentional capture by memory related distractors when VWM was filled with a single item. However, memory related capture was no longer present for memory loads beyond a single item. The absence of memory related capture at higher VWM loads was independent of individual VWM capacity, nor was it attributable to weaker encoding, forgetting, or reduced precision of memory representations. When analyses were limited to those trials in which participants had a relatively precise memory, there was still no sign of attentional guidance at higher loads. However, when observers were cued toward a specific memory item after encoding, interference with search returned. These results are consistent with a distinction within VWM between representations that interact with perception and those that do not, and show that only a single VWM representation at a time can interact with visual attention.

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