Neural Dynamics of Cognitive Control over Working Memory Capture of Attention.

Research paper by Peter S PS Whitehead, Mathilde M MM Ooi, Tobias T Egner, Marty G MG Woldorff

Indexed on: 12 Jun '19Published on: 03 Apr '19Published in: Journal of cognitive neuroscience


The contents of working memory (WM) guide visual attention toward matching features, with visual search being faster when the target and a feature of an item held in WM spatially overlap (validly cued) than when they occur at different locations (invalidly cued). Recent behavioral studies have indicated that attentional capture by WM content can be modulated by cognitive control: When WM cues are reliably helpful to visual search (predictably valid), capture is enhanced, but when reliably detrimental (predictably invalid), capture is attenuated. The neural mechanisms underlying this effect are not well understood, however. Here, we leveraged the high temporal resolution of ERPs time-locked to the onset of the search display to determine how and at what processing stage cognitive control modulates the search process. We manipulated predictability by grouping trials into unpredictable (50% valid/invalid) and predictable (100% valid, 100% invalid) blocks. Behavioral results confirmed that predictability reduced WM-related capture. Comparison of ERPs to the search arrays showed that the N2pc, a posteriorly distributed signature of initial attentional orienting toward a lateralized target, was not impacted by target validity predictability. However, a longer latency, more anterior, lateralized effect-here, termed the "contralateral attention-related negativity"-was reduced under predictable conditions. This reduction interacted with validity, with substantially greater reduction for invalid than valid trials. These data suggest cognitive control over attentional capture by WM content does not affect the initial attentional-orienting process but can reduce the need to marshal later control mechanisms for processing relevant items in the visual world.