Dissecting the Neural Focus of Attention Reveals Distinct Processes for Spatial Attention and Object-Based Storage in Visual Working Memory

Psychol Sci. 2019 Apr;30(4):526-540. doi: 10.1177/0956797619830384. Epub 2019 Feb 28.


Complex cognition relies on both on-line representations in working memory (WM), said to reside in the focus of attention, and passive off-line representations of related information. Here, we dissected the focus of attention by showing that distinct neural signals index the on-line storage of objects and sustained spatial attention. We recorded electroencephalogram (EEG) activity during two tasks that employed identical stimulus displays but varied the relative demands for object storage and spatial attention. We found distinct delay-period signatures for an attention task (which required only spatial attention) and a WM task (which invoked both spatial attention and object storage). Although both tasks required active maintenance of spatial information, only the WM task elicited robust contralateral delay activity that was sensitive to mnemonic load. Thus, we argue that the focus of attention is maintained via a collaboration between distinct processes for covert spatial orienting and object-based storage.

Keywords: attention; contralateral delay activity; electroencephalogram; open data; open materials; visual working memory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Attention / physiology*
  • Color
  • Electroencephalography
  • Humans
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Spatial Memory / physiology*
  • Task Performance and Analysis