Prioritizing Information during Working Memory: Beyond Sustained Internal Attention

Trends Cogn Sci. 2017 Jun;21(6):449-461. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2017.03.010. Epub 2017 Apr 25.


Working memory (WM) has limited capacity. This leaves attention with the important role of allowing into storage only the most relevant information. It is increasingly evident that attention is equally crucial for prioritizing representations within WM as the importance of individual items changes. Retrospective prioritization has been proposed to result from a focus of internal attention highlighting one of several representations. Here, we suggest an updated model, in which prioritization acts in multiple steps: first orienting towards and selecting a memory, and then reconfiguring its representational state in the service of upcoming task demands. Reconfiguration sets up an optimized perception-action mapping, obviating the need for sustained attention. This view is consistent with recent literature, makes testable predictions, and links WM with task switching and action preparation.

Keywords: attention; focus of attention; latent information storage; retrocue; task set; working memory.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Attention / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Models, Psychological