Saccadic Eye Movements Impose a Natural Bottleneck on Visual Short-Term Memory

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Visual short-term memory (VSTM) is a crucial repository of information when events unfold rapidly before our eyes, yet it maintains only a fraction of the sensory information encoded by the visual system. Here, we tested the hypothesis that saccadic eye movements provide a natural bottleneck for the transition of fragile content in sensory memory to VSTM. In 4 experiments, we show that saccades, planned and executed after the disappearance of a memory array, markedly bias visual memory performance. First, items that had appeared at the saccade target were more readily remembered than items that had appeared elsewhere, even though the saccade was irrelevant to the memory task (Experiment 1). Second, this influence was strongest for saccades elicited right after the disappearance of the memory array and gradually declined over the course of a second (Experiment 2). Third, the saccade stabilized memory representations: The imposed bias persisted even several seconds after saccade execution (Experiment 3). Finally, the advantage for stimuli congruent with the saccade target occurred even when that stimulus was far less likely to be probed in the memory test than any other stimulus in the array, ruling out a strategic effort of observers to memorize information presented at the saccade target (Experiment 4). Together, these results make a strong case that saccades inadvertently determine the content of VSTM, and highlight the key role of actions for the fundamental building blocks of cognition.

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