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The influence of spatially irrelevant working memory demands on attentional allocation

Gerald P McDonnell, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


On a daily basis, our visual system is confronted with far more stimuli than it can possibly process at one time. The ability to select and prioritize certain objects in our environment is therefore critical to perception of, and action in, the world. Both attention and memory are complex, multifaceted processes that continuously interact as individuals perceive and act on the visual world. Previous research has suggested that holding items in visual working memory influences the guidance of selective attention and performance on attentional tasks. It has also been demonstrated that visual attention is strongly influenced by overlearned spatial stimuli (symbolic attention). However, substantially less work has examined the direct connection between spatial attention, symbolic attention, and working memory. This dissertation investigates the relationship between exogenous, endogenous, and symbolic attention as it relates to working memory and attentional allocation. Furthermore, it is examined how allowing the cue to become task relevant (though unrelated to the target detection task) influences performance on standard attentional tasks. Spatial cues held in working memory and presented online were shown to guide visual attention in a complex search task. Furthermore, in support of the flexible nature of attentional control settings, participants also demonstrated the ability to avoid attending to features in the environment that matched the working memory load of the observer in order to best adhere to task demands. This top-down control of visual attention via the contents of working memory was also seen with endogenous cues and to some degree exogenous cue, demonstrating the importance of one’s attentional control setting when guiding visual behavior. The current thesis provides further evidence in regards to the degree to which attentional cues are under the control of the observer, how task relevant cues influence performance on attentional task, as well as a more complete understanding of the complex relationship between attention and working memory.

Subject Area

Neurosciences|Mental health|Cognitive psychology

Recommended Citation

McDonnell, Gerald P, "The influence of spatially irrelevant working memory demands on attentional allocation" (2016). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI10101037.