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Garrett Swan, Brad Wyble, Hui Chen; Does an unexpected task reset the contents of visual working memory?. Journal of Vision 2017;17(10):97. doi: https://doi.org/10.1167/17.10.97.
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It is well known that visual information can be held in memory while performing different tasks concurrently, such as remembering a color during a separate visual search task. However, it is not clear whether we can maintain this information in the face of immediate unexpected tasks, such as a surprise question. This question is relevant to our general understanding of visual working memory and attention and is also relevant for experimental paradigms utilizing surprise test methodologies. When considering the results of experiments with unexpected questions, it is especially important to determine if an inability to report information is due to the reorientation to a new task imposed by the surprise question. To answer this question, we ran two experiments where the instructions unexpectedly switched from recognition to recall in a surprise trial. Half of the participants were asked to report the same attribute (Exp1 = Identity, Exp2 = Color) of a target stimulus in both pre-surprise and post-surprise trials, while for the other half, the reported attribute switched from identity to color or vice versa. Importantly, all participants had to read an unexpected set of instructions and respond differently on the surprise trial. A decline in accuracy on the surprise trial compared to the first control trial was only observed in the different-attribute groups, but not in the same-attribute groups. Accuracy on the surprise trial was also higher for the same-attribute groups than the different-attribute groups. Furthermore, there was no difference in reaction time on the surprise trial between the two groups. These results suggest that information participants expected to report can survive an encounter with an unexpected task. The implication is that failures to report information on a surprise trial in many experiments reflect genuine differences in memory encoding, rather than forgetting or overwriting induced by the surprise question.
Meeting abstract presented at VSS 2017
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