Benefits of Flexible Prioritization in Working Memory Can Arise Without Costs

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Most recent models conceptualize working memory (WM) as a continuous resource, divided up according to task demands. When an increasing number of items need to be remembered, each item receives a smaller chunk of the memory resource. These models predict that the allocation of attention to high-priority WM items during the retention interval should be a zero-sum game: improvements in remembering cued items come at the expense of uncued items because resources are dynamically transferred from uncued to cued representations. The current study provides empirical data challenging this model. Four precision retrocueing WM experiments assessed cued and uncued items on every trial. This permitted a test for trade-off of the memory resource. We found no evidence for trade-offs in memory across trials. Moreover, robust improvements in WM performance for cued items came at little or no cost to uncued items that were probed afterward, thereby increasing the net capacity of WM relative to neutral cueing conditions. An alternative mechanism of prioritization proposes that cued items are transferred into a privileged state within a response-gating bottleneck, in which an item uniquely controls upcoming behavior. We found evidence consistent with this alternative. When an uncued item was probed first, report of its orientation was biased away from the cued orientation to be subsequently reported. We interpret this bias as competition for behavioral control in the output-driving bottleneck. Other items in WM did not bias each other, making this result difficult to explain with a shared resource model.

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