- Interactions between visual working memory and attention : evidence from functional magnetic resonance imaging (2008)
- Visual working memory (WM) and selective attention are fundamental cognitive mechanisms, both operating at the interface between perception and action. They are related because both are postulated to have limits with respect to how much information can be processed. Specifically, selective attention has been implicated as a limiting factor for the storage capacity of visual WM. However, visual WM and attention have been largely studied in isolation and interactions between the two have rarely been addressed. This dissertation aimed at investigating interactions between selective attention and the encoding of information into visual WM in the context of one common characteristic feature, namely their limitation in capacity. An experimental task was used that combined visual search with delayed discrimination and the demands on selective attention and WM encoding were manipulated orthogonally. In each trial participants were presented with a search array consisting of nine different grey geometric shapes. A small L-shaped item that appeared in one of four different orientations and that was coloured either blue or red was placed in the centre of each shape. Participants were instructed to search for predefined target items (Ls oriented 90°) and to memorise the shapes associated with these target items. After a delay phase a probe was presented and participants decided whether it did or did not match one of the memorised shapes. Attentional demand was manipulated by changing the search efficiency in the visual search component of the task (easy vs. difficult search) and WM load was manipulated by the number of targets (1 to 5). A behavioural study was conducted to isolate the processes that allowed participants to successfully encode complex shapes into WM while engaging spatial attention for a visual search task. The data provided evidence for a two-step encoding strategy. In the first step participants selected and memorised only the locations of all target items and only then they encoded the associated shapes at a later step. This strategy allowed them to cope with the interference between WM and attention that would otherwise take place. In the second part of this dissertation interference between visual attention and the encoding into visual WM was investigated on the level of neural activation using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Specifically, the hypothesis was tested that the capacity limitation of visual WM is due to common limited-capacity neural resources shared by visual WM and attention. Two separate fMRI experiments were conducted that combined visual search and delayed visual discrimination for either objects (experiment 1) or locations (experiment 2). The results revealed overlapping activation for attention-demanding visual search and object WM encoding in distributed posterior and frontal regions. In the right prefrontal cortex and bilateral insula BOLD activation additively increased with increased WM load and attentional demand. Conversely, the analysis revealed an interaction effect in several visual, parietal, and premotor areas. These regions showed overlapping activation for the two task components and were severely reduced in their WM load response under the condition with high attentional demand. This interaction effect was found in similar frontal and posterior regions when combining visual search and spatial WM encoding in experiment 2. In contrast, regions in the prefrontal cortex were selectively responsive to WM load and differed to some degree depending on the WM domain. Here, activation associated with increased WM load was delayed rather than reduced under high attentional demand. The fMRI results provide convergent evidence that visual selective attention and the encoding of information into WM share, to a high degree, common neural resources. The findings indicate that competition for resources shared by visual attention and WM encoding can limit processing capabilities in distributed posterior brain regions but not the prefrontal cortex. The findings support the view that WM evolves from the recruitement of attentional mechanisms (Cowan, 2001; Wheeler und Treisman, 2002) the very same that act upon perceptual representations as well (Slotnick, 2004; Jonides et al., 2005; Pasternak and Greenlee, 2005; Postle, 2006; Ranganath, 2006). The similarity in the effects of interference between attention and the encoding of objects or locations into WM indicates that the attention-based model of WM encoding is valid across different WM domains. The capacity of visual WM can be limited at various stages of processing. The behavioural and fMRI data presented in this dissertation illustrate that one major bottleneck of information processing arises from the common demands on neural and cognitive resources shared between visual WM and selective attention during the encoding stage.
- Attentional demand influences strategies for encoding into visual working memory (2007)
- Visual selective attention and visual working memory (WM) share the same capacity-limited resources. We investigated whether and how participants can cope with a task in which these 2 mechanisms interfere. The task required participants to scan an array of 9 objects in order to select the target locations and to encode the items presented at these locations into WM (1 to 5 shapes). Determination of the target locations required either few attentional resources (“popout condition”) or an attention-demanding serial search (“non pop-out condition”). Participants were able to achieve high memory performance in all stimulation conditions but, in the non popout conditions, this came at the cost of additional processing time. Both empirical evidence and subjective reports suggest that participants invested the additional time in memorizing the locations of all target objects prior to the encoding of their shapes into WM. Thus, they seemed to be unable to interleave the steps of search with those of encoding. We propose that the memory for target locations substitutes for perceptual pop-out and thus may be the key component that allows for flexible coping with the common processing limitations of visual WM and attention. The findings have implications for understanding how we cope with real-life situations in which the demands on visual attention and WM occur simultaneously. Keywords: attention, working memory, interference, encoding strategies