Visual working memory load plays limited, to no role in encoding distractor objects during visual search

Mark Lavelle*, David Alonso, Roy Luria, Trafton Drew

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Previous research raised the counterintuitive hypothesis that searching for multiple potential targets leads to increased incidental encoding of distractors. Are these previously reported findings due to increased visual working memory (VWM) engagement, or less precise target templates? In four experiments, we examined the effect of VWM load during visual search on incidental encoding of distractors. Consecutive target repetitions indirectly reduce template-related VWM demands but failed to reduce recognition for distractors relative to conditions where the targets were novel. Distractors that were subsequently recognized attracted longer cumulative dwell time, regardless of search condition. When placed in a dual-task situation where search was performed while holding a working memory load, recognition for distractors was marginally improved relative to a search task without additional VWM demands. We ruled out the possibility that the dual-task was not sufficiently difficult to trigger the scrutiny of distractors required for significant encoding benefits by showing a decrement to encoding when search time was limited. This suggests that widening the attentional set is the crucial factor in improved incidental encoding given that observers can assign differential status to various contents of VWM. Thus, utilizing VWM resources in general appears insufficient to meaningfully improve incidental memory.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)288-309
Number of pages22
JournalVisual Cognition
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2021


FundersFunder number
United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation2018106


    • Incidental encoding
    • eye tracking
    • target template
    • visual search
    • visual working memory


    Dive into the research topics of 'Visual working memory load plays limited, to no role in encoding distractor objects during visual search'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this