ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2016, Vol. 48 ›› Issue (9): 1105-1118.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2016.01105

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What do eye movements reveal about the role of cognitive control in attention guidance from working memory representation

ZHANG Bao; HU Cenlou; Huang Sai   

  1. (School of Education/The Center for Mind and Brain, Guangzhou University, Guangzhou 510006, China)
  • Received:2015-08-28 Published:2016-09-25 Online:2016-09-25
  • Contact: Huang Sai, E-mail:


The biased competition model of attention proposes that stimuli in visual scene compete for attentional selection with the ‘winner’ gaining control of both perceptual and response systems. The activation of relevant object features in working memory (WM) biases neural activity in specific brain regions that encode those particular features so that the object could win the competition and get the priority of attention. In decades, researchers have found that irrelevant representations in working memory (WM) could guide visual attention bias to the distractors that sharing the features of the WM representations in visual search task. However, the issue whether the cognitive control could modulate the process of attentional guidance was controversial yet. Here, we adopted the eye movement tracking technique to examine (1) whether the cognitive control made the participants intentionally inhibit or reject the bias of attention towards the WM matched distractor and (2) when did cognitive control play the role in the processing of attentional guidance. The participants in the present study were asked to search for a target among three distractors while holding a colored shape online in WM. During the visual search task, the item in WM either reappeared as one of the distractors in half of trials or did not reappear in other half of trials. Most importantly, at the beginning of the experiment, all the participants were indefinitely informed that the WM item could never reappear as target in visual search task and they could adopt the ‘rejecting’ or ‘inhibiting’ strategy to bias attention away towards such distractor so as to facilitate the efficiency of visual search. Both the eye movement deployment and the response time (RT) were recorded while the participants performing the visual search task. The results of experiment 1 showed that, when using the easy visual search task, an obviously attentional guidance effect was observed for both the first fixation proportion and RTs, and such effect was not affected by the visual search speed. However, when using the difficult visual search task, the results of the first fixation proportion showed an significant attentional guidance effect, and the magnitudes were significantly greater for the participants who searched fast (fast group) than for those who searched slowly (slow group). In contrast, the results of RTs failed to obtain any above attentional guidance effect, and the further analysis indicated that this null effect was due to the opposite attentioanl bias pattern represented for two groups of visual search speed, i.e., attentional guidance pattern for fast group and attentional rejection pattern for slow group. The results of experiment 2 found the attentional guidance remain robust at the early stage when the more prominent visual search target was adopted. Most importantly, the attentional guidance was stable even when the WM matched distractor directly competed with the prominent search target. In conclusion, the results showed that the attentional guidance from WM representation was dynamically changed along with the process of visual search and the cognitive control could modulate the attentional guidance effect only when the visual search was so slowly that the time for cognitive control working was sufficient. The modulation of cognitive control could weaken the magnitudes of attentional guidance effect at the early stage of visual search task and reverse the attentional bias pattern from guidance to rejection in the following processes of visual search task.

Key words: cognitive control, attentional guidance effect, difficulty of visual search, visual search speed