Recall cues interfere with retrieval from visuospatial working memory

Br J Psychol. 2019 May;110(2):288-305. doi: 10.1111/bjop.12374. Epub 2019 Jan 2.


Visuospatial working memory allows us to hold multiple visual objects over short delays. It is typically tested by presenting an array of objects, then after a delay showing a 'probe' indicating which memory item to recall or reproduce by adjusting a target feature. However, recent studies demonstrate that information at the time of probe can disrupt recall. Here, in three experiments we test whether traditional memory probes, which contain features that compete with the feature to be recalled, may themselves interfere with performance. We asked participants to report the direction of one of the several coloured arrows in memory, based on its colour. First, we demonstrate that recall is better when the probe is initially just a coloured dot, rather than a coloured arrow which has to be adjusted to match orientation memory, consistent with interference from features of the probe itself. Second, this interference is present even when a mask follows the memory array, suggesting that the interference does not work by degrading immediate or iconic memory. Finally, when items are shown sequentially, the first and last items are invulnerable to probe interference. Our findings support recent theories of associative recall, in which probes reactivate features in WM, retrieving information by pattern completion.

Keywords: recall cues; retrieval; visuospatial working memory.

MeSH terms

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