A role for spatial and nonspatial working memory processes in visual search.

Research paper by Elaine J EJ Anderson, Sabira K SK Mannan, Geraint G Rees, Petroc P Sumner, Christopher C Kennard

Indexed on: 01 Jan '08Published on: 01 Jan '08Published in: Experimental psychology


Searching a cluttered visual scene for a specific item of interest can take several seconds to perform if the target item is difficult to discriminate from surrounding items. Whether working memory processes are utilized to guide the path of attentional selection during such searches remains under debate. Previous studies have found evidence to support a role for spatial working memory in inefficient search, but the role of nonspatial working memory remains unclear. Here, we directly compared the role of spatial and nonspatial working memory for both an efficient and inefficient search task. In Experiment 1, we used a dual-task paradigm to investigate the effect of performing visual search within the retention interval of a spatial working memory task. Importantly, by incorporating two working memory loads (low and high) we were able to make comparisons between dual-task conditions, rather than between dual-task and single-task conditions. This design allows any interference effects observed to be attributed to changes in memory load, rather than to nonspecific effects related to "dual-task" performance. We found that the efficiency of the inefficient search task declined as spatial memory load increased, but that the efficient search task remained efficient. These results suggest that spatial memory plays an important role in inefficient but not efficient search. In Experiment 2, participants performed the same visual search tasks within the retention interval of visually matched spatial and verbal working memory tasks. Critically, we found comparable dual-task interference between inefficient search and both the spatial and nonspatial working memory tasks, indicating that inefficient search recruits working memory processes common to both domains.