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J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 2018 Jun;44(6):827-835. doi: 10.1037/xhp0000517.

Time limits during visual foraging reveal flexible working memory templates.

Author information

Department of Psychology.
Department of Cognitive Science, University of Malta.


During difficult foraging tasks, humans rarely switch between target categories, but switch frequently during easier foraging. Does this reflect fundamental limits on visual working memory (VWM) capacity or simply strategic choice due to effort? Our participants performed time-limited or unlimited foraging tasks where they tapped stimuli from 2 target categories while avoiding items from 2 distractor categories. These time limits should have no effect if capacity imposes limits on VWM representations but more flexible VWM could allow observers to use VWM according to task demands in each case. We found that with time limits, participants switched more frequently and switch-costs became much smaller than during unlimited foraging. Observers can therefore switch between complex (conjunction) target categories when needed. We propose that while maintaining many complex templates in working memory is effortful and observers avoid this, they can do so if this fits task demands, showing the flexibility of working memory representations used for visual exploration. This is in contrast with recent proposals, and we discuss the implications of these findings for theoretical accounts of working memory. (PsycINFO Database Record.

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