Obligatory encoding of task-irrelevant features depletes working memory resources

Louise Marshall, Paul M Bays
Journal of Vision 2013, 13 (2)
Selective attention is often considered the "gateway" to visual working memory (VWM). However, the extent to which we can voluntarily control which of an object's features enter memory remains subject to debate. Recent research has converged on the concept of VWM as a limited commodity distributed between elements of a visual scene. Consequently, as memory load increases, the fidelity with which each visual feature is stored decreases. Here we used changes in recall precision to probe whether task-irrelevant features were encoded into VWM when individuals were asked to store specific feature dimensions. Recall precision for both color and orientation was significantly enhanced when task-irrelevant features were removed, but knowledge of which features would be probed provided no advantage over having to memorize both features of all items. Next, we assessed the effect an interpolated orientation-or color-matching task had on the resolution with which orientations in a memory array were stored. We found that the presence of orientation information in the second array disrupted memory of the first array. The cost to recall precision was identical whether the interfering features had to be remembered, attended to, or could be ignored. Therefore, it appears that storing, or merely attending to, one feature of an object is sufficient to promote automatic encoding of all its features, depleting VWM resources. However, the precision cost was abolished when the match task preceded the memory array. So, while encoding is automatic, maintenance is voluntary, allowing resources to be reallocated to store new visual information.

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