New paper: What happens to an individual visual working memory representation when it is interrupted?

Bae, G.-Y., & Luck, S. J. (2018). What happens to an individual visual working memory representation when it is interrupted? British Journal of Psychology.

Working memory is often conceived as a buffer that holds information currently being operated upon. However, many studies have shown that it is possible to perform fairly complex tasks (e.g., visual search) that are interposed during the retention interval of a change detection task with minimal interference (especially load-dependent interference). One possible explanation is that the information from the change detection task can be held in some other form (e.g., activity-silent memory) while the interposed task is being performed.  If so, this might be expected to have subtle effects on the memory for the stimulus.

To test this, we had subjects perform a delayed estimation task, in which a single teardrop-shaped stimulus was held in memory and was reproduced at the end of the trial (see figure below). A single letter stimulus was presented during the delay period on some trials. We asked whether performing a very simple task with this interposed stimulus would cause a subtle disruption in the memory for the teardrop's orientation.  In some trial blocks, subjects simply ignored the interposed letter, and we found that it produced no disruption of the memory for the teardrop. In other trial blocks, subjects had to make a speeded response to the interposed letter, indicating whether it was a C or a D. Although this was a simple task, and only a single object was being maintained in working memory, the interposed stimulus caused the memory of the teardrop to become less precise and more categorical.

Thus, performing even a simple task on an interposed stimulus can disrupt a previously encoding working memory representation. The representation is not destroyed, but becomes less precise and more categorical, perhaps indicating that it had been offloaded into a different form of storage while the interposed task was being performed. Interestingly, we did not find this effect when an auditory interposed task was used, consistent with modality-specific representations.