Working memory load and distraction: dissociable effects of visual maintenance and cognitive control.


We establish a new dissociation between the roles of working memory (WM) cognitive control and visual maintenance in selective attention as measured by the efficiency of distractor rejection. The extent to which focused selective attention can prevent distraction has been shown to critically depend on the level and type of load involved in the task. High perceptual load that consumes perceptual capacity leads to reduced distractor processing, whereas high WM load that reduces WM ability to exert priority-based executive cognitive control over the task results in increased distractor processing (e.g., Lavie, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(2), 75-82, 2005). WM also serves to maintain task-relevant visual representations, and such visual maintenance is known to recruit the same sensory cortices as those involved in perception (e.g., Pasternak & Greenlee, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 6(2), 97-107, 2005). These findings led us to hypothesize that loading WM with visual maintenance would reduce visual capacity involved in perception, thus resulting in reduced distractor processing-similar to perceptual load and opposite to WM cognitive control load. Distractor processing was assessed in a response competition task, presented during the memory interval (or during encoding; Experiment 1a) of a WM task. Loading visual maintenance or encoding by increased set size for a memory sample of shapes, colors, and locations led to reduced distractor response competition effects. In contrast, loading WM cognitive control with verbal rehearsal of a random letter set led to increased distractor effects. These findings confirm load theory predictions and provide a novel functional distinction between the roles of WM maintenance and cognitive control in selective attention.

Attention, Percepttion & Psychophysics