The contributions of visual and central attention to visual working memory

Atten Percept Psychophys. 2017 Oct;79(7):1897-1916. doi: 10.3758/s13414-017-1357-y.


We investigated the role of two kinds of attention-visual and central attention-for the maintenance of visual representations in working memory (WM). In Experiment 1 we directed attention to individual items in WM by presenting cues during the retention interval of a continuous delayed-estimation task, and instructing participants to think of the cued items. Attending to items improved recall commensurate with the frequency with which items were attended (0, 1, or 2 times). Experiments 1 and 3 further tested which kind of attention-visual or central-was involved in WM maintenance. We assessed the dual-task costs of two types of distractor tasks, one tapping sustained visual attention and one tapping central attention. Only the central attention task yielded substantial dual-task costs, implying that central attention substantially contributes to maintenance of visual information in WM. Experiment 2 confirmed that the visual-attention distractor task was demanding enough to disrupt performance in a task relying on visual attention. We combined the visual-attention and the central-attention distractor tasks with a multiple object tracking (MOT) task. Distracting visual attention, but not central attention, impaired MOT performance. Jointly, the three experiments provide a double dissociation between visual and central attention, and between visual WM and visual object tracking: Whereas tracking multiple targets across the visual filed depends on visual attention, visual WM depends mostly on central attention.

Keywords: Attention; Dual-task costs; Multiple object tracking; Refreshing; Working memory.

MeSH terms

  • Attention*
  • Cues
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term*
  • Mental Recall*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Psychomotor Performance
  • Visual Perception
  • Young Adult