An updating-based working memory load alters the dynamics of eye movements but not their spatial extent during free viewing of natural scenes




Wyche, Nicholas
Edwards, Mark
Goodhew, Stephanie Catherine

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Springer Nature


The relationship between spatial deployments of attention and working memory load is an important topic of study, with clear implications for real-world tasks such as driving. Previous research has generally shown that attentional breadth broadens under higher load, while exploratory eye-movement behaviour also appears to change with increasing load. However, relatively little research has compared the effects of working memory load on different kinds of spatial deployment, especially in conditions that require updating of the contents of working memory rather than simple retrieval. The present study undertook such a comparison by measuring participants' attentional breadth (via an undirected Navon task) and their exploratory eye-movement behaviour (a free-viewing recall task) under low and high updating working memory loads. While spatial aspects of task performance (attentional breadth, and peripheral extent of image exploration in the free-viewing task) were unaffected by the load manipulation, the exploratory dynamics of the free-viewing task (including fixation durations and scan-path lengths) changed under increasing load. These findings suggest that temporal dynamics, rather than the spatial extent of exploration, are the primary mechanism affected by working memory load during the spatial deployment of attention. Further, individual differences in exploratory behaviour were observed on the free-viewing task: all metrics were highly correlated across working memory load blocks. These findings suggest a need for further investigation of individual differences in eye-movement behaviour; potential factors associated with these individual differences, including working memory capacity and persistence versus flexibility orientations, are discussed.



attentional breadth, eye movements, scene-viewing, updating, visual attention, working memory



Attention, Perception & Psychophysics


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Open access

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Creative Commons License (Attribution 4.0 International)



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