Conscious Visual Memory With Minimal Attention

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Is conscious visual perception limited to the locations that a person attends? The remarkable phenomenon of change blindness, which shows that people miss nearly all unattended changes in a visual scene, suggests the answer is yes. However, change blindness is found after visual interference (a mask or a new scene), so that subjects have to rely on working memory (WM), which has limited capacity, to detect the change. Before such interference, however, a much larger capacity store, called fragile memory (FM), which is easily overwritten by newly presented visual information, is present. Whether these different stores depend equally on spatial attention is central to the debate on the role of attention in conscious vision. In 2 experiments, we found that minimizing spatial attention almost entirely erases visual WM, as expected. Critically, FM remains largely intact. Moreover, minimally attended FM responses yield accurate metacognition, suggesting that conscious memory persists with limited spatial attention. Together, our findings help resolve the fundamental issue of how attention affects perception: Both visual consciousness and memory can be supported by only minimal attention.

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