October 2020
Volume 20, Issue 11
Open Access
Vision Sciences Society Annual Meeting Abstract  |   October 2020
Natural variation in the representational fidelity between multiple working memory items can explain which item guides attention
Author Affiliations
  • Jamal R. Williams
    University of California San Diego
  • Timothy F. Brady
    University of California San Diego
  • Viola S. Stoermer
    University of California San Diego
Journal of Vision October 2020, Vol.20, 1616. doi:https://doi.org/10.1167/jov.20.11.1616
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      Jamal R. Williams, Timothy F. Brady, Viola S. Stoermer; Natural variation in the representational fidelity between multiple working memory items can explain which item guides attention. Journal of Vision 2020;20(11):1616. https://doi.org/10.1167/jov.20.11.1616.

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      © ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)

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When holding a single item in working memory, visual attention is automatically guided towards objects that match its features, but results are mixed as to whether multiple concurrently stored items can also guide attention. These results are relevant to models of attention and working memory use the single-item guidance account as evidence for the structure of working memory comprising distinct states where one item is prioritized over all others (i.e., a special focus of attention). However, previous studies give little consideration to how memory strength for individual items affects guidance. We therefore test how multiple items interact with attention and how memory fidelity influences this relationship. Participants remembered one or two colors, then performed a visual search task, and finally reported one of the memory items using continuous report. We found reliable guidance when participants remembered one or two items, but the multiple-item effect could be explained by guidance from only one of the items on a proportion of trials. In Experiment 2, by precisely measuring memory for individual items, we show that items naturally vary in their representational fidelity, and that in general only items with the strongest representation guides attention. In Experiment 3, we demonstrate that no distinct states in working memory — i.e., no special focus of attention — is necessary to explain these single-item guidance effects. Instead, natural variation in representational fidelity between items can explain why some items have better memories than others and why those items guide attention. In particular, only very strong memories guide attention, and it is rare for more than one item to have such strong fidelity. These findings challenge current models of working memory and attention by suggesting that natural variation in representational fidelity, instead of distinct and prioritized memory states, determine which item guides attention on any given trial.


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