Attention Mediates the Flexible Allocation of Visual Working Memory Resources

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Abstract

Though it is clear that it is impossible to store an unlimited amount of information in visual working memory (VWM), the limiting mechanisms remain elusive. While several models of VWM limitations exist, these typically characterize changes in performance as a function of the number of to-be-remembered items. Here, we examine whether changes in spatial attention could better account for VWM performance, independent of load. Across 2 experiments, performance was better predicted by the prioritization of memory items (i.e., attention) than by the number of items to be remembered (i.e., memory load). This relationship followed a power law, and held regardless of whether performance was assessed based on overall precision or any of 3 measures in a mixture model. Moreover, at large set sizes, even minimally attended items could receive a small proportion of resources, without any evidence for a discrete-capacity on the number of items that could be maintained in VWM. Finally, the observed data were best fit by a variable-precision model in which response error was related to the proportion of resources allocated to each item, consistent with a model of VWM in which performance is determined by the continuous allocation of attentional resources during encoding.

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