Focusing on Attention: The Effects of Working Memory Capacity and Load on Selective Attention

Ahmed, Lubna and De Fockert, J. W.. 2012. Focusing on Attention: The Effects of Working Memory Capacity and Load on Selective Attention. PLoS ONE, 7(8), e43101. ISSN 1932-6203 [Article]

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Abstract or Description


Working memory (WM) is imperative for effective selective attention. Distractibility is greater under conditions of high (vs. low) concurrent working memory load (WML), and in individuals with low (vs. high) working memory capacity (WMC). In the current experiments, we recorded the flanker task performance of individuals with high and low WMC during low and high WML, to investigate the combined effect of WML and WMC on selective attention.
Methodology/Principal Findings

In Experiment 1, distractibility from a distractor at a fixed distance from the target was greater when either WML was high or WMC was low, but surprisingly smaller when both WML was high and WMC low. Thus we observed an inverted-U relationship between reductions in WM resources and distractibility. In Experiment 2, we mapped the distribution of spatial attention as a function of WMC and WML, by recording distractibility across several target-to-distractor distances. The pattern of distractor effects across the target-to-distractor distances demonstrated that the distribution of the attentional window becomes dispersed as WM resources are limited. The attentional window was more spread out under high compared to low WML, and for low compared to high WMC individuals, and even more so when the two factors co-occurred (i.e., under high WML in low WMC individuals). The inverted-U pattern of distractibility effects in Experiment 1, replicated in Experiment 2, can thus be explained by differences in the spread of the attentional window as a function of WM resource availability.

The current findings show that limitations in WM resources, due to either WML or individual differences in WMC, affect the spatial distribution of attention. The difference in attentional constraining between high and low WMC individuals demonstrated in the current experiments helps characterise the nature of previously established associations between WMC and controlled attention.

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28 August 2012Published

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Date Deposited:

30 Aug 2012 14:29

Last Modified:

03 Aug 2021 15:03

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Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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