Is a search template an ordinary working memory? Comparing electrophysiological markers of working memory maintenance for visual search and recognition

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Visual search requires the maintenance of a search template in visual working memory in order to guide attention towards the target. This raises the question whether a search template is essentially the same as a visual working memory representation used in tasks that do not require attentional guidance, or whether it is a qualitatively different representation. Two experiments tested this by comparing electrophysiological markers of visual working memory maintenance between simple recognition and search tasks. For both experiments, responses were less rapid and less accurate in search task than in simple recognition. Nevertheless, the contralateral delay activity (CDA), an index of quantity and quality of visual working memory representations, was equal across tasks. On the other hand, the late positive complex (LPC), which is sensitive to the effort invested in visual working memory maintenance, was greater for the search task than the recognition task. Additionally, when the same target cue was repeated across trials (Experiment 2), the amplitude of visual working memory markers (both CDA and LPC) decreased, demonstrating learning of the target at an equal rate for both tasks. Our results suggest that a search template is qualitatively the same as a representation used for simple recognition, but greater effort is invested in its maintenance.

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