Selective Attention to Auditory Memory Neurally Enhances Perceptual Precision

J Neurosci. 2015 Dec 9;35(49):16094-104. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2674-15.2015.


Selective attention to a task-relevant stimulus facilitates encoding of that stimulus into a working memory representation. It is less clear whether selective attention also improves the precision of a stimulus already represented in memory. Here, we investigate the behavioral and neural dynamics of selective attention to representations in auditory working memory (i.e., auditory objects) using psychophysical modeling and model-based analysis of electroencephalographic signals. Human listeners performed a syllable pitch discrimination task where two syllables served as to-be-encoded auditory objects. Valid (vs neutral) retroactive cues were presented during retention to allow listeners to selectively attend to the to-be-probed auditory object in memory. Behaviorally, listeners represented auditory objects in memory more precisely (expressed by steeper slopes of a psychometric curve) and made faster perceptual decisions when valid compared to neutral retrocues were presented. Neurally, valid compared to neutral retrocues elicited a larger frontocentral sustained negativity in the evoked potential as well as enhanced parietal alpha/low-beta oscillatory power (9-18 Hz) during memory retention. Critically, individual magnitudes of alpha oscillatory power (7-11 Hz) modulation predicted the degree to which valid retrocues benefitted individuals' behavior. Our results indicate that selective attention to a specific object in auditory memory does benefit human performance not by simply reducing memory load, but by actively engaging complementary neural resources to sharpen the precision of the task-relevant object in memory.

Significance statement: Can selective attention improve the representational precision with which objects are held in memory? And if so, what are the neural mechanisms that support such improvement? These issues have been rarely examined within the auditory modality, in which acoustic signals change and vanish on a milliseconds time scale. Introducing a new auditory memory paradigm and using model-based electroencephalography analyses in humans, we thus bridge this gap and reveal behavioral and neural signatures of increased, attention-mediated working memory precision. We further show that the extent of alpha power modulation predicts the degree to which individuals' memory performance benefits from selective attention.

Keywords: alpha oscillations; attention to memory; electroencephalography; psychometric curve; retrocue.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials, Auditory / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Male
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Pitch Discrimination / physiology*
  • Psychophysics
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Statistics as Topic
  • Time Factors