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Attention looking out and looking inward: How is the focus of attention in WM related to perceptual attention?

English title Attention looking out and looking inward: How is the focus of attention in WM related to perceptual attention?
Applicant Oberauer Klaus
Number 126766
Funding scheme Project funding (Div. I-III)
Research institution Psychologisches Institut Universität Zürich
Institution of higher education University of Zurich - ZH
Main discipline Psychology
Start/End 01.12.2009 - 31.12.2012
Approved amount 215'108.00
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Keywords (3)

working memory; attention; interruption

Lay Summary (English)

Lead
Lay summary
Working memory is a system of limited capacity that holds a small number of mental contents (such as words, numbers, or objects) available for ongoing processing. As such, working memory is the blackboard of thought. Processing information in working memory involves selective access to some of its contents. For instance, when we add three-digit numbers, we need to selectively access first the ones, then the tens, then the hundreds, without at the same time forgetting the remaining digits. Selective access is the function of a focus of attention directed at working-memory contents. Thus, we can direct attention "inward" on the contents of our working memory just as we can direct attention "outward" to aspects of the perceived world around us. The question addressed in the project is whether attention directed to working-memory contents and attention directed to contents of perception (such as objects, or spoken words) uses the same or overlapping cognitive mechanisms. We test this through experiments that engage participants in a task involving continuous updating of working memory. People remember two or three numbers and update individual numbers through arithmetic operations. Thus, their focus of attention is constantly engaged with selecting one number and carrying out calculations with it. Occasionally, people will be interrupted by a perceptual event (e.g., a phone ringing or a letter flashed on the computer screen) and they have to respond to that event (e.g., by pressing a button to switch off the phone, or by making a quick decision whether the letter is an L or a T). The task to carry out in response to the perceptual stimulus will be designed so that it attracts one or another variety of perceptual attention (e.g., attention to a location in space, attention to an acoustic event, attention to a feature dimension such as color, etc). If attention to perceptual information overlaps with attention to working-memory contents, we expect an interruption of the continuous updating task. In particular, we expect that after the interruption task, attention will no longer rest on the last digit updated before the interruption. As a consequence, it should not matter whether the next arithmetic operation must be applied to the same digit as before the interruption or to another digit. The project will provide new insights into the mechanisms of attentional selection directed at perceptual input and at memory representations. In addition, it will provide knowledge about the circumstances under which a train of thought is interrupted by an environmental demand, and how well the mind can recover from such interruptions.
Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 21.02.2013

Responsible applicant and co-applicants

Employees

Publications

Publication
Spatial transposition gradients in visual working memory
Rerko Laura, Lin Hsuan-Yu, Oberauer Klaus (2014), Spatial transposition gradients in visual working memory, in Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 67, 3-15.
Attention to information in working memory
Oberauer Klaus, Hein Laura (2012), Attention to information in working memory, in Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(3), 164-169.
Focused, unfocused, and de-focused information in working memory
Rerko Laura, Oberauer Klaus, Focused, unfocused, and de-focused information in working memory, in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition.

Scientific events

Active participation

Title Type of contribution Title of article or contribution Date Place Persons involved
53rd Psychonomic Society Annual Meeting Poster The focus of attention in working memory 15.11.2012 Minneapolis, USA, United States of America Oberauer Klaus; Rerko Laura;
6th European Working Memory Symposium (EWOMS) Poster The focus of attention in working memory 05.09.2012 Fribourg, Switzerland Rerko Laura; Oberauer Klaus;
54th Tagung experimentell arbeitender Psychologen (TeaP) Talk given at a conference Thefocus of attention in working memory 03.04.2012 Mannheim, Germany, Germany Rerko Laura;
European Society of Cognitive Psychology Meeting Talk given at a conference The focus of attention in working memory 02.10.2011 San Sebastian, Spain, Spain Rerko Laura; Oberauer Klaus;
12th Congress of the Swiss Psychological Society Talk given at a conference The focus of attention in working memory 12.09.2011 Fribourg, Switzerland Oberauer Klaus; Rerko Laura;
5th European Working Memory Symposium (EWOMS) Talk given at a conference The focus of attention in working memory 01.09.2010 Civita Castellana, Italien, Italy Oberauer Klaus; Rerko Laura;


Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
130113 Declarative and procedural Working memory 01.05.2010 Project funding (Div. I-III)
143333 The focus of attention in working memory 01.02.2013 Project funding (Div. I-III)
192204 The Cooperation of Working Memory and Long-Term Memory 01.08.2020 Project funding (Div. I-III)
134417 Working Memory: Modelling and Experiments 01.06.2011 International short research visits

Abstract

Working memory is a system of limited capacity that holds a small number of mental representations available for ongoing processing. As such, working memory is the blackboard of thought. Processing information in working memory involves selective access to some of its contents; this is the function of a focus of attention directed at working-memory contents. Building on previous experiments that provide evidence for the existence of a focus of attention in working memory, the proposed project asks how attention in working memory and attention to perceptual stimuli are related - do they operate independently or draw on the same cognitive mechanisms? To investigate this question, we will use the new interruption paradigm: People work on a continuous working-memory updating task demanding attention to one item in working memory at a time, and are occasionally interrupted by a task demanding attention to a perceptual stimulus. We measure whether after the interruption the item in working memory last processed before the interruption is still in the focus of attention - if it is, we conclude that the interruption task does not engage the same attentional mechanism as the focus of attention in working memory. The planned project has 4 parts. Part A investigates features of the interruption task that determine whether it pulls away attention from working memory contents. Part B aims at guiding the focus of attention in working memory to one particular representation by manipulating the features of the interruption stimulus. Part C investigates whether longer series of interruption operations can pull away the focus from the last used content of working memory under conditions in which a single brief interruption did not succeed in doing so (in Part A). Part D will consist of experiments attempting to guide visual attention by manipulating the content of the focus of attention in working memory at the point of interruption by a visual task. The project will provide new insights into the mechanisms of attentional selection directed at perceptual input and at memory representations. In addition, it will provide knowledge about the circumstances under which a train of thought is interrupted by an environmental demand, and how well the mind can recover from such interruptions.
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