Studies examining the relationship between spatial attention and spatial working memory (SWM) have shown that discrimination responses are faster for targets appearing at locations that are being maintained in SWM, and that location memory is impaired when attention is withdrawn during the delay. These observations support the proposal that sustained attention is required for successful retention in SWM: if attention is withdrawn, memory representations are likely to fail, increasing errors. In the present study, this proposal is reexamined in light of a neural process model of SWM. On the basis of the model’s functioning, we propose an alternative explanation for the observed decline in SWM performance when a secondary task is performed during retention: SWM representations drift systematically toward the location of targets appearing during the delay. To test this explanation, participants completed a color-discrimination task during the delay interval of a spatial recall task. In the critical shifting attention condition, the color stimulus could appear either toward or away from the memorized location relative to a midline reference axis. We hypothesized that if shifting attention during the delay leads to the failure of SWM representations, there should be an increase in the variance of recall errors but no change in directional error, regardless of the direction of the shift. Conversely, if shifting attention induces drift of SWM representations—as predicted by the model—there should be systematic changes in the pattern of spatial recall errors depending on the direction of the shift. Results were consistent with the latter possibility—recall errors were biased toward the location of discrimination targets appearing during the delay.
- Theoretical and computational models
- Spatial memory