Attending to unrelated targets boosts short-term memory for color arrays

Tal Makovski, Khena M. Swallow, Yuhong V. Jiang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Detecting a target typically impairs performance in a second, unrelated task. It has been recently reported however, that detecting a target in a stream of distractors can enhance long-term memory of faces and scenes that were presented concurrently with the target (the attentional boost effect). In this study we ask whether target detection also enhances performance in a visual short-term memory task, where capacity limits are severe. Participants performed two tasks at once: a one shot, color change detection task and a letter-detection task. In Experiment 1, a central letter appeared at the same time as 3 or 5 color patches (memory display). Participants encoded the colors and pressed the spacebar if the letter was a T (target). After a short retention interval, a probe display of color patches appeared. Performance on the change detection task was enhanced when a target, rather than a distractor, appeared with the memory display. This effect was not modulated by memory load or the frequency of trials in which a target appeared. However, there was no enhancement when the target appeared at the same time as the probe display (Experiment 2a) or during the memory retention interval (Experiment 2b). Together these results suggest that detecting a target facilitates the encoding of unrelated information into visual short-term memory.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1498-1505
Number of pages8
Issue number6
StatePublished - May 2011
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was supported in part by the Institute for Research in Marketing at the University of Minnesota. We thank Mark Stokes and Wilma Koutstaal for suggestions.


  • Attentional boost effect
  • Dual-task processing
  • Visual short term memory


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