The vulnerability of working memory to distraction is rhythmic

Neuropsychologia. 2020 Sep;146:107505. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2020.107505. Epub 2020 May 30.


Recent research posits that the cognitive system samples target stimuli in a rhythmic fashion, characterized by target detection fluctuating at frequencies of ~3-8 Hz. Besides prioritized encoding of targets, a key cognitive function is the protection of working memory from distractor intrusion. Here, we test to which degree the vulnerability of working memory to distraction is rhythmic. In an Irrelevant-Speech Task, N = 23 human participants had to retain the serial order of nine numbers in working memory while being distracted by task-irrelevant speech with variable temporal onsets. The magnitude of the distractor-evoked N1 component in the event-related potential as well as behavioural recall accuracy, both measures of memory distraction, were periodically modulated by distractor onset time in approximately 2-4 cycles per second (Hz). Critically, an underlying 2.5-Hz rhythm explained variation in both measures of distraction such that stronger phasic distractor encoding mediated lower phasic memory recall accuracy. In a behavioural follow-up experiment, we tested whether these results would replicate in a task design without rhythmic presentation of target items. Participants (N = 6 with on average >2500 trials, each) retained two line-figures in memory while being distracted by acoustic noise of varying onset across trials. In agreement with the main experiment, the temporal onset of the distractor periodically modulated memory performance. These results suggest that during working memory retention, the human cognitive system implements distractor suppression in a temporally dynamic fashion, reflected in ~400-ms long cycles of high versus low distractibility.

Keywords: Attention; Distraction; Oscillation; Rhythm; Suppression; Working memory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't