Contextual Cueing of Tactile Search Is Coded in an Anatomical Reference Frame

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This work investigates the reference frame(s) underlying tactile context memory, a form of statistical learning in a tactile (finger) search task. In this task, if a searched-for target object is repeatedly encountered within a stable spatial arrangement of task-irrelevant distractors, detecting the target becomes more efficient over time (relative to nonrepeated arrangements), as learned target-distractor spatial associations come to guide tactile search, thus cueing attention to the target location. Since tactile search displays can be represented in several reference frames, including multiple external and an anatomical frame, in Experiment 1 we asked whether repeated search displays are represented in tactile memory with reference to an environment-centered or anatomical reference frame. In Experiment 2, we went on examining a hand-centered versus anatomical reference frame of tactile context memory. Observers performed a tactile search task, divided into a learning and test session. At the transition between the two sessions, we introduced postural manipulations of the hands (crossed ↔ uncrossed in Expt. 1; palm-up ↔ palm-down in Expt. 2) to determine the reference frame of tactile contextual cueing. In both experiments, target-distractor associations acquired during learning transferred to the test session when the placement of the target and distractors was held constant in anatomical, but not external, coordinates. In the latter, RTs were even slower for repeated displays. We conclude that tactile contextual learning is coded in an anatomical reference frame.

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