Real-time triggering reveals concurrent lapses of attention and working memory

Nat Hum Behav. 2019 Aug;3(8):808-816. doi: 10.1038/s41562-019-0606-6. Epub 2019 May 20.


Attention and working memory are clearly intertwined, as shown by co-variations in individual ability and the recruitment of similar neural substrates. Both processes fluctuate over time1-5, and these fluctuations may be a key determinant of individual variations in ability6,7. If these fluctuations are due to the waxing and waning of a common cognitive resource, attention and working memory should co-vary on a moment-to-moment basis. To test this, we developed a hybrid task that interleaved a sustained attention task and a whole-report working memory task. Experiment 1 established that performance fluctuations on these tasks correlated across and within participants: attention lapses led to worse working memory performance. Experiment 2 extended this finding using a real-time triggering procedure that monitored attention fluctuations to probe working memory during optimal (high-attention) or suboptimal (low-attention) moments. In low-attention moments, participants stored fewer items in working memory. Experiment 3 ruled out task-general fluctuations as an explanation for these co-variations by showing that the precision of colour memory was unaffected by variations in attention state. In summary, we demonstrate that attention and working memory lapse together, providing additional evidence for the tight integration of these cognitive processes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Attention / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance
  • Young Adult