Beyond a mask and against the bottleneck: Retroactive dual-task interference during working memory consolidation of a masked visual target

Mark Nieuwenstein, Brad Wyble

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49 Scopus citations


While studies on visual memory commonly assume that the consolidation of a visual stimulus into working memory is interrupted by a trailing mask, studies on dual-task interference suggest that the consolidation of a stimulus can continue for several hundred milliseconds after a mask. As a result, estimates of the time course of working memory consolidation differ more than an order of magnitude. Here, we contrasted these opposing views by examining if and for how long the processing of a masked display of visual stimuli can be disturbed by a trailing 2-alternative forced choice task (2-AFC; a color discrimination task or a visual or auditory parity judgment task). The results showed that the presence of the 2-AFC task produced a pronounced retroactive interference effect that dissipated across stimulus onset asynchronies of 250-1,000 ms, indicating that the processing elicited by the 2-AFC task interfered with the gradual consolidation of the earlier shown stimuli. Furthermore, this interference effect occurred regardless of whether the to-be-remembered stimuli comprised a string of letters or an unfamiliar complex visual shape, and it occurred regardless of whether these stimuli were masked. Conversely, the interference effect was reduced when the memory load for the 1st task was reduced, or when the 2nd task was a color detection task that did not require decision making. Taken together, these findings show that the formation of a durable and consciously accessible working memory trace for a briefly shown visual stimulus can be disturbed by a trailing 2-AFC task for up to several hundred milliseconds after the stimulus has been masked. By implication, the current findings challenge the common view that working memory consolidation involves an immutable central processing bottleneck, and they also make clear that consolidation does not stop when a stimulus is masked.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1409-1427
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • General Psychology
  • Developmental Neuroscience


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