Competition in working memory reduces frontal guidance of visual selection

David Soto, Ciara M. Greene, Anum Chaudhary, Pia Rotshtein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Working memory (WM) representations can bias visual selection to matching stimuli in the field. WM biases can, however, be modulated by the level of cognitive load, with WM guidance reduced as memory load increases. Here, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to distinguish between competing hypotheses for the reduction of WM guidance under load: 1) poor neural representations of memory contents under high load, 2) strategic control at high loads to direct attention away from search distracters matching the WM content, and 3) reduction of frontal top-down biasing of visual areas with increasing memory loads. We show that matching between WM contents and the visual display appeared to be well represented in visual areas under high memory loads, despite a lack of WM guidance at the behavioral level. There was little engagement of "cognitive control" areas in the prefrontal cortex during search at high loads. More importantly, WM guidance at low loads engaged a set of frontal regions in the superior and inferior ventral frontal cortex. Functional connectivity analyses revealed frontal regions working in concert with occipital areas at low memory loads, but this coupling was disrupted by increased memory load. We discuss the implications for understanding the mechanisms supporting the interplay between WM and attention.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1159-1169
Number of pages11
JournalCerebral Cortex
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • attention
  • prefrontal
  • vision
  • working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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