The effect of items in working memory on the deployment of attention and the eyes during visual search.

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Journal of experimental psychology. Human perception and performance, Volume 32, Number 2, p.423–42 (2006)



Adolescent, Adult, Analysis of Variance, Attention, Attention: physiology, Exploratory Behavior, Exploratory Behavior: physiology, Eye Movements, Eye Movements: physiology, Female, Field Dependence-Independence, Humans, Male, Memory, Mental Processes, Mental Processes: physiology, Photic Stimulation, Photic Stimulation: methods, Short-Term, Short-Term: physiology, Spatial Behavior, Spatial Behavior: physiology, Visual Perception, Visual Perception: physiology


Paying attention to an object facilitates its storage in working memory. The authors investigate whether the opposite is also true: whether items in working memory influence the deployment of attention. Participants performed a search for a prespecified target while they held another item in working memory. In some trials this memory item was present in the search display as a distractor. Such a distractor has no effect on search time if the search target is in the display. In that case, the item in working memory is unlikely to be selected as a target for an eye movement, and if the eyes do land on it, fixation duration is short. In the absence of the target, however, there is a small but significant effect of the memory item on search time. The authors conclude that the target for visual search has a special status in working memory that allows it to guide attention. Guidance of attention by other items in working memory is much weaker and can be observed only if the search target is not present in the display.