Sustained Attention and Spatial Attention Distinctly Influence Long-term Memory Encoding

J Cogn Neurosci. 2021 Sep 1;33(10):2132-2148. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_01748.


Our attention is critically important for what we remember. Prior measures of the relationship between attention and memory, however, have largely treated "attention" as a monolith. Here, across three experiments, we provide evidence for two dissociable aspects of attention that influence encoding into long-term memory. Using spatial cues together with a sensitive continuous report procedure, we find that long-term memory response error is affected by both trial-by-trial fluctuations of sustained attention and prioritization via covert spatial attention. Furthermore, using multivariate analyses of EEG, we track both sustained attention and spatial attention before stimulus onset. Intriguingly, even during moments of low sustained attention, there is no decline in the representation of the spatially attended location, showing that these two aspects of attention have robust but independent effects on long-term memory encoding. Finally, sustained and spatial attention predicted distinct variance in long-term memory performance across individuals. That is, the relationship between attention and long-term memory suggests a composite model, wherein distinct attentional subcomponents influence encoding into long-term memory. These results point toward a taxonomy of the distinct attentional processes that constrain our memories.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Attention*
  • Cues
  • Humans
  • Memory, Long-Term*
  • Memory, Short-Term
  • Mental Recall
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Spatial Memory