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When memory is not enough: electrophysiological evidence for goal-dependent use of working memory representations in guiding visual attention

Nancy B Carlisle, Geoffrey F Woodman
Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 2011, 23 (10): 2650-64
21254796
Biased competition theory proposes that representations in working memory drive visual attention to select similar inputs. However, behavioral tests of this hypothesis have led to mixed results. These inconsistent findings could be due to the inability of behavioral measures to reliably detect the early, automatic effects on attentional deployment that the memory representations exert. Alternatively, executive mechanisms may govern how working memory representations influence attention based on higher-level goals. In the present study, we tested these hypotheses using the N2pc component of participants' event-related potentials to directly measure the early deployments of covert attention. Participants searched for a target in an array that sometimes contained a memory-matching distractor. In Experiments 1 to 3, we manipulated the difficulty of the target discrimination and the proximity of distractors, but consistently observed that covert attention was deployed to the search targets and not the memory-matching distractors. In Experiment 4, we showed that when participants' goal involved attending to memory-matching items, these items elicited a large and early N2pc. Our findings demonstrate that working memory representations alone are not sufficient to guide early deployments of visual attention to matching inputs and that goal-dependent executive control mediates the interactions between working memory representations and visual attention.

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