JOURNAL ARTICLE

Reconciling conflicting electrophysiological findings on the guidance of attention by working memory

Nancy B Carlisle, Geoffrey F Woodman
Attention, Perception & Psychophysics 2013, 75 (7): 1330-5
23918552
Maintaining a representation in working memory has been proposed to be sufficient for the execution of top-down attentional control. Two recent electrophysiological studies that recorded event-related potentials (ERPs) during similar paradigms have tested this proposal, but have reported contradictory findings. The goal of the present study was to reconcile these previous reports. To this end, we used the stimuli from one study (Kumar, Soto, & Humphreys, 2009) combined with the task manipulations from the other (Carlisle & Woodman, 2011b). We found that when an item matching a working memory representation was presented in a visual search array, we could use ERPs to quantify the size of the covert attention effect. When the working memory matches were consistently task-irrelevant, we observed a weak attentional bias to these items. However, when the same item indicated the location of the search target, we found that the covert attention effect was approximately four times larger. This shows that simply maintaining a representation in working memory is not equivalent to having a top-down attentional set for that item. Our findings indicate that high-level goals mediate the relationship between the contents of working memory and perceptual attention.

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