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Nancy Carlisle, Geoffrey Woodman; Measuring the handoff of the attentional template from working memory to long-term memory. Journal of Vision 2011;11(11):1297. doi: 10.1167/11.11.1297.
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Theories of visual attention propose that target template representations in working memory implement top-down control over the selection of information in complex scenes during visual search. However, theories of learning and automaticity propose that as we gain proficiency at performing a task, processing shifts between relying on working memory representations to a reliance upon long-term memory. Together these theories suggest that as we repeatedly search cluttered visual scenes for the same target, the attentional template that guides selection should be transferred from working memory to long-term memory. In this study, we tested this prediction using event-related potentials (ERPs) to directly measure what is maintained in working memory during visual search. Our analyses focused on the contralateral-delay activity (or CDA), which is a lateralized ERP component that measures the online maintenance of information in visual working memory (Vogel & Machizawa, 2004). Participants performed a visual search task for an item matching a lateralized target cue. The identity of the target cue remained the same across runs of consecutive trials before a new target object was cued. Measuring the amplitude of the CDA elicited by the cue allowed us to determine how the involvement of working memory changed with experience searching for the same target. We found that the large amplitude CDA measured during the initial searches following a target identity change rapidly diminished and was essentially gone within 10 trials. Our findings show that the target representations that control visual attention are rapidly handed off to long-term memory from working memory.
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