Selective memory disrupted in intra-modal dual-task encoding conditions

Mem Cognit. 2021 Oct;49(7):1453-1472. doi: 10.3758/s13421-021-01166-1. Epub 2021 Mar 24.


Given natural memory limitations, people can generally attend to and remember high-value over low-value information even when cognitive resources are depleted in older age and under divided attention during encoding, representing an important form of cognitive control. In the current study, we examined whether tasks requiring overlapping processing resources may impair the ability to selectively encode information in dual-task conditions. Participants in the divided-attention conditions of Experiment 1 completed auditory tone-distractor tasks that required them to discriminate between tones of different pitches (audio-nonspatial) or auditory channels (audio-spatial), while studying items in different locations in a grid (visual-spatial) differing in reward value. Results indicated that, while reducing overall memory accuracy, neither cross-modal auditory distractor task influenced participants' ability to selectively encode high-value items relative to a full attention condition, suggesting maintained cognitive control. Participants in Experiment 2 studied the same important visual-spatial information while completing demanding color (visual-nonspatial) or pattern (visual-spatial) discrimination tasks during study. While the cross-modal visual-nonspatial task did not influence memory selectivity, the intra-modal visual-spatial secondary task eliminated participants' sensitivity to item value. These results add novel evidence of conditions of impaired cognitive control, suggesting that the effectiveness of top-down, selective encoding processes is attenuated when concurrent tasks rely on overlapping processing resources.

Keywords: Attention; Memory; Modality; Selectivity; Spatial; Visual.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Attention*
  • Humans
  • Mental Recall*