Limits to the flexible re-distribution of visual working memory resources after encoding

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Attention regulates visual working memory (VWM) performance by determining how its resources are distributed among encoded information. During encoding, this process is both flexible and strategic: Resources are unequally allocated to items based on the probability that each will be probed for memory recall. Here we assessed whether VWM resources can be strategically re-distributed among encoded items during maintenance. Across three experiments, participants encoded the colours of various shapes and were given information about the probability that each remembered item would be probed for recall via a retro-cue prompting the prioritization of two (E1 and E2) or one (E3) representation(s). We observe a reliable benefit of the retro-cues in all three experiments such that cued items were recalled with greater precision than non-cued items; however, we observed no evidence that the magnitude of this benefit was affected by the probability assigned to the cues when two items were prioritized, and only marginal evidence for an effect when a single item was prioritized. We argue that, although resources can be re-distributed post-encoding, the mechanism underlying this capability lacks the flexibility of that which underlies resource distribution during encoding, highlighting an important limitation in how attention regulates VWM performance.

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... However, these observations further suggest that differences in status may be associated with differences in how flexibly WM processes, such as the reallocation of resources, can operate on these representations. Finally, it is worth noting that the difficulty in reallocating resources from an attentional template to another representation (Kerzel & Witzel, 2019) is also consistent with recent proposals that the initial allocation of WM resources is automatically driven, while the subsequent reallocation of resources depends on controlled processes that are considerably limited (Dube, Lockhart, et al., 2019a;Williams et al., 2020). Thus, representations that obtain the attentional template status may automatically bias the allocation of WM resources in their favor, with little possibility for controlled processes to reverse this situation. ...
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Recently, working memory (WM) has been conceptualized as a limited resource, distributed flexibly and strategically between an unlimited number of representations. In addition to improving the precision of representations in WM, the allocation of resources may also shape how these representations act as attentional templates to guide visual search. Here, we reviewed recent evidence in favor of this assumption and proposed three main principles that govern the relationship between WM resources and template-guided visual search. First, the allocation of resources to an attentional template has an effect on visual search, as it may improve the guidance of visual attention, facilitate target recognition, and/or protect the attentional template against interference. Second, the allocation of the largest amount of resources to a representation in WM is not sufficient to give this representation the status of attentional template and thus, the ability to guide visual search. Third, the representation obtaining the status of attentional template, whether at encoding or during maintenance, receives an amount of WM resources proportional to its relevance for visual search. Thus defined, the resource hypothesis of visual search constitutes a parsimonious and powerful framework, which provides new perspectives on previous debates and complements existing models of template-guided visual search.
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