Trade-offs Between Working Memory and Attention

Institute Member Ed Awh, Ph.D. and colleagues demonstrate the dynamic trade-off in prioritization between two spatial tasks


van Moorselaar, D., Foster, J.J., Sutterer, D.W., Theeuwes, J., Olivers, C.N.L., & Awh, E. (2018). Spatially Selective Alpha Oscillations Reveal Moment-by-Moment Trade-offs between Working Memory and Attention. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 30(2), 256-266. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_01198. PubMed PMID: 29040014.


Current theories assume a functional role for covert attention in the maintenance of spatial information in working memory. Consistent with this view, both the locus of attention and positions stored in working memory can be decoded based on the topography of oscillatory alpha-band (8-12 Hz) activity on the scalp. Thus far, however, alpha modulation has been studied in isolation for covert attention and working memory tasks. Here, we applied an inverted spatial encoding model in combination with EEG to study the temporal dynamics of spatially specific alpha activity during a task that required observers to visually select a target location while maintaining another independently varying location in working memory. During the memory delay period, alpha-based spatial tuning functions shifted from the position stored in working memory to the covertly attended position and back again after the attention task was completed. The findings provide further evidence for a common oscillatory mechanism in both the selection and the maintenance of relevant spatial visual information and demonstrate the dynamic trade-off in prioritization between two spatial tasks.

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