Competition for the focus of attention in visual working memory: perceptual recency versus executive control

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2018 Jul;1424(1):64-75. doi: 10.1111/nyas.13631. Epub 2018 Mar 10.


Previous research on memory for a short sequence of visual stimuli indicates that access to the focus of attention (FoA) can be achieved in either of two ways. The first is automatic and is indexed by the recency effect, the enhanced retention of the final item. The second is strategic and based on instructions to prioritize items differentially, a process that draws on executive capacity and boosts retention of information deemed important. In both cases, the increased level of retention can be selectively reduced by presenting a poststimulus distractor (or suffix). We manipulated these variables across three experiments. Experiment 1 generalized previous evidence that prioritizing a single item enhances its retention and increases its vulnerability to interference from a poststimulus suffix. A second experiment showed that the enhancement from prioritizing one or two items comes at a cost to the recency effect. A third experiment showed that prioritizing two items renders memory for both vulnerable to interference from an irrelevant suffix. The results suggest that some but not all items in working memory compete to occupy a narrow FoA and that this competition is determined by a combination of perceptually driven recency and internal executive control.

Keywords: focus of attention; prioritization; visual working memory.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*