The contents of visual working memory reduce uncertainty during visual search

Joshua D Cosman, Shaun P Vecera
Attention, Perception & Psychophysics 2011, 73 (4): 996-1002
Information held in visual working memory (VWM) influences the allocation of attention during visual search, with targets matching the contents of VWM receiving processing benefits over those that do not. Such an effect could arise from multiple mechanisms: First, it is possible that the contents of working memory enhance the perceptual representation of the target. Alternatively, it is possible that when a target is presented among distractor items, the contents of working memory operate postperceptually to reduce uncertainty about the location of the target. In both cases, a match between the contents of VWM and the target should lead to facilitated processing. However, each effect makes distinct predictions regarding set-size manipulations; whereas perceptual enhancement accounts predict processing benefits regardless of set size, uncertainty reduction accounts predict benefits only with set sizes larger than 1, when there is uncertainty regarding the target location. In the present study, in which briefly presented, masked targets were presented in isolation, there was a negligible effect of the information held in VWM on target discrimination. However, in displays containing multiple masked items, information held in VWM strongly affected target discrimination. These results argue that working memory representations act at a postperceptual level to reduce uncertainty during visual search.

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