Center-Surround Inhibition in Working Memory.

Research paper by Anastasia A Kiyonaga, Tobias T Egner

Indexed on: 30 Dec '15Published on: 30 Dec '15Published in: Current Biology


Directing visual attention toward a particular feature or location in the environment suppresses processing of nearby stimuli [1-4]. Echoing the center-surround organization of retinal ganglion cell receptive fields [5], and biasing of competitive local neuronal dynamics in favor of task-relevant stimuli [6], this "inhibitory surround" attention mechanism accentuates the demarcation between task-relevant and irrelevant items. Here, we show that internally maintaining a color stimulus in working memory (WM), rather than visually attending the stimulus in the external environment, produces an analogous pattern of inhibition for stimuli that are nearby in color space. Replicating a well-known effect of attentional capture by stimuli that match WM content [7], visual attention was biased toward (task-irrelevant) stimuli that exactly matched a WM item. This bias was curtailed, however, for stimuli that were very similar to the WM content (i.e., within the inhibitory zone surrounding the focus of WM) and recovered for less similar stimuli (i.e., beyond the bounds of the inhibitory surround). Moreover, the expression of this inhibition effect was positively associated with WM performance across observers. In a second experiment, inhibition also occurred between two similar items simultaneously held in WM. This suggests that maintenance in WM is characterized by an excitatory peak centered on the focus of (internal) attention, surrounded by an inhibitory zone to limit interference by irrelevant and confusable representations. Here, thus, we show for the first time that the same center-surround selection mechanism that focuses visual attention on sensory stimuli also selectively maintains internally activated representations in WM.