Spatial context learning survives interference from working memory load

J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 2010 Dec;36(6):1358-71. doi: 10.1037/a0020558.


The human visual system is constantly confronted with an overwhelming amount of information, only a subset of which can be processed in complete detail. Attention and implicit learning are two important mechanisms that optimize vision. This study addressed the relationship between these two mechanisms. Specifically we asked, Is implicit learning of spatial context affected by the amount of working memory load devoted to an irrelevant task? We tested observers in visual search tasks where search displays occasionally repeated. Observers became faster when searching repeated displays than unrepeated ones, showing contextual cuing. We found that the size of contextual cuing was unaffected by whether observers learned repeated displays under unitary attention or when their attention was divided using working memory manipulations. These results held when working memory was loaded by colors, dot patterns, individual dot locations, or multiple potential targets. We conclude that spatial context learning is robust to interference from manipulations that limit the availability of attention and working memory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Association Learning*
  • Attention*
  • Color Perception*
  • Cues
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term*
  • Orientation*
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual*
  • Reaction Time
  • Space Perception*
  • Young Adult