The short- and long-term fates of memory items retained outside the focus of attention

Joshua J LaRocque, Adam S Eichenbaum, Michael J Starrett, Nathan S Rose, Stephen M Emrich, Bradley R Postle
Memory & Cognition 2015, 43 (3): 453-68
When a test of working memory (WM) requires the retention of multiple items, a subset of them can be prioritized. Recent studies have shown that, although prioritized (i.e., attended) items are associated with active neural representations, unprioritized (i.e., unattended) memory items can be retained in WM despite the absence of such active representations, and with no decrement in their recognition if they are cued later in the trial. These findings raise two intriguing questions about the nature of the short-term retention of information outside the focus of attention. First, when the focus of attention shifts from items in WM, is there a loss of fidelity for those unattended memory items? Second, could the retention of unattended memory items be accomplished by long-term memory mechanisms? We addressed the first question by comparing the precision of recall of attended versus unattended memory items, and found a significant decrease in precision for unattended memory items, reflecting a degradation in the quality of those representations. We addressed the second question by asking subjects to perform a WM task, followed by a surprise memory test for the items that they had seen in the WM task. Long-term memory for unattended memory items from the WM task was not better than memory for items that had remained selected by the focus of attention in the WM task. These results show that unattended WM representations are degraded in quality and are not preferentially represented in long-term memory, as compared to attended memory items.

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