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Contralateral Delay Activity Indexes Working Memory Storage, Not the Current Focus of Spatial Attention

Tobias Feldmann-W├╝stefeld, Edward K Vogel, Edward Awh
Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 2018, 30 (8): 1185-1196
29694260
Contralateral delay activity (CDA) has long been argued to track the number of items stored in visual working memory (WM). Recently, however, Berggren and Eimer [Berggren, N., & Eimer, M. Does contralateral delay activity reflect working memory storage or the current focus of spatial attention within visual working memory? Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 28, 2003-2020, 2016] proposed the alternative hypothesis that the CDA tracks the current focus of spatial attention instead of WM storage. This hypothesis was based on the finding that, when two successive arrays of memoranda were placed in opposite hemifields, CDA amplitude was primarily determined by the position and number of items in the second display, not the total memory load across both displays. Here, we considered the alternative interpretation that participants dropped the first array from WM when they encoded the second array because the format of the probe display was spatially incompatible with the initial sample display. In this case, even if the CDA indexes active storage rather than spatial attention, CDA activity would be determined by the second array. We tested this idea by directly manipulating the spatial compatibility of sample and probe displays. With spatially incompatible displays, we replicated Berggren and Eimer's findings. However, with spatially compatible displays, we found clear evidence that CDA activity tracked the full storage load across both arrays, in line with a WM storage account of CDA activity. We propose that expectations of display compatibility influenced whether participants viewed the arrays as parts of a single extended event or two independent episodes. Thus, these findings raise interesting new questions about how event boundaries may shape the interplay between passive and active representations of task-relevant information.

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