Working memory as internal attention: toward an integrative account of internal and external selection processes.

Research paper by Anastasia A Kiyonaga, Tobias T Egner

Indexed on: 13 Dec '12Published on: 13 Dec '12Published in: Psychonomic Bulletin & Review


Working memory (WM) and attention have been studied as separate cognitive constructs, although it has long been acknowledged that attention plays an important role in controlling the activation, maintenance, and manipulation of representations in WM. WM has, conversely, been thought of as a means of maintaining representations to voluntarily guide perceptual selective attention. It has more recently been observed, however, that the contents of WM can capture visual attention, even when such internally maintained representations are irrelevant, and often disruptive, to the immediate external task. Thus, the precise relationship between WM and attention remains unclear, but it appears that they may bidirectionally impact one another, whether or not internal representations are consistent with the external perceptual goals. This reciprocal relationship seems, further, to be constrained by limited cognitive resources to handle demands in either maintenance or selection. We propose here that the close relationship between WM and attention may be best described as a give-and-take interdependence between attention directed toward either actively maintained internal representations (traditionally considered WM) or external perceptual stimuli (traditionally considered selective attention), underpinned by their shared reliance on a common cognitive resource. Put simply, we argue that WM and attention should no longer be considered as separate systems or concepts, but as competing and influencing one another because they rely on the same limited resource. This framework can offer an explanation for the capture of visual attention by irrelevant WM contents, as well as a straightforward account of the underspecified relationship between WM and attention.