More target features in visual working memory leads to poorer search guidance: evidence from contralateral delay activity

Joseph Schmidt, Annmarie MacNamara, Greg Hajcak Proudfit, Gregory J Zelinsky
Journal of Vision 2014, 14 (3): 8
The visual-search literature has assumed that the top-down target representation used to guide search resides in visual working memory (VWM). We directly tested this assumption using contralateral delay activity (CDA) to estimate the VWM load imposed by the target representation. In Experiment 1, observers previewed four photorealistic objects and were cued to remember the two objects appearing to the left or right of central fixation; Experiment 2 was identical except that observers previewed two photorealistic objects and were cued to remember one. CDA was measured during a delay following preview offset but before onset of a four-object search array. One of the targets was always present, and observers were asked to make an eye movement to it and press a button. We found lower magnitude CDA on trials when the initial search saccade was directed to the target (strong guidance) compared to when it was not (weak guidance). This difference also tended to be larger shortly before search-display onset and was largely unaffected by VWM item-capacity limits or number of previews. Moreover, the difference between mean strong- and weak-guidance CDA was proportional to the increase in search time between mean strong-and weak-guidance trials (as measured by time-to-target and reaction-time difference scores). Contrary to most search models, our data suggest that trials resulting in the maintenance of more target features results in poor search guidance to a target. We interpret these counterintuitive findings as evidence for strong search guidance using a small set of highly discriminative target features that remain after pruning from a larger set of features, with the load imposed on VWM varying with this feature-consolidation process.

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