The impact of interference on short-term memory for visual orientation

J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 2015 Dec;41(6):1650-65. doi: 10.1037/xhp0000110. Epub 2015 Aug 10.


Visual short-term memory serves as an efficient buffer for maintaining no longer directly accessible information. How robust are visual memories against interference? Memory for simple visual features has proven vulnerable to distractors containing conflicting information along the relevant stimulus dimension, leading to the idea that interacting feature-specific channels at an early stage of visual processing support memory for simple visual features. Here we showed that memory for a single randomly orientated grating was susceptible to interference from a to-be-ignored distractor grating presented midway through a 3-s delay period. Memory for the initially presented orientation became noisier when it differed from the distractor orientation, and response distributions were shifted toward the distractor orientation (by ∼3°). Interestingly, when the distractor was rendered task-relevant by making it a second memory target, memory for both retained orientations showed reduced reliability as a function of increased orientation differences between them. However, the degree to which responses to the first grating shifted toward the orientation of the task-relevant second grating was much reduced. Finally, using a dichoptic display, we demonstrated that these systematic biases caused by a consciously perceived distractor disappeared once the distractor was presented outside of participants' awareness. Together, our results show that visual short-term memory for orientation can be systematically biased by interfering information that is consciously perceived.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Female
  • Healthy Volunteers
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Orientation / physiology*
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology*
  • Reaction Time / physiology*
  • Young Adult