Getting more from visual working memory: Retro-cues enhance retrieval and protect from visual interference

J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 2016 Jun;42(6):890-910. doi: 10.1037/xhp0000192. Epub 2016 Jan 11.


Visual working memory (VWM) has a limited capacity. This limitation can be mitigated by the use of focused attention: if attention is drawn to the relevant working memory content before test, performance improves (the so-called retro-cue benefit). This study tests 2 explanations of the retro-cue benefit: (a) Focused attention protects memory representations from interference by visual input at test, and (b) focusing attention enhances retrieval. Across 6 experiments using color recognition and color reproduction tasks, we varied the amount of color interference at test, and the delay between a retrieval cue (i.e., the retro-cue) and the memory test. Retro-cue benefits were larger when the memory test introduced interfering visual stimuli, showing that the retro-cue effect is in part because of protection from visual interference. However, when visual interference was held constant, retro-cue benefits were still obtained whenever the retro-cue enabled retrieval of an object from VWM but delayed response selection. Our results show that accessible information in VWM might be lost in the processes of testing memory because of visual interference and incomplete retrieval. This is not an inevitable state of affairs, though: Focused attention can be used to get the most out of VWM. (PsycINFO Database Record

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Cues*
  • Humans
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Mental Recall / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult