Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
To assess whether working memory contents can effectively bias visual selection even when they do not represent the current target in the attention task, we recorded the ERP activity from participants performing both a memory task and, in the retention period, a visual search task. In this task, a distracter matching the memory content could be presented on the same side (congruent trials) or on the opposite side (incongruent trials) relative to the target location (Experiment 1 and Experiment 2). On some trials, only the matching distracter (but no target) was presented (catch trials, Experiment 2). Results showed that the N2pc component was modulated by the presence and location of a matching distracter. We interpret these results as evidence that the involuntary control exerted by the irrelevant memory contents coexists with the strategic mechanism related to the search target, influencing attention selection with roughly equal power. In Experiment 3, we found that the modulation of the N2pc is not strictly related to the active maintenance of the memory-target features but can also be elicited by repetition priming. Overall, these findings suggest that, together with the physical properties of the stimuli presented in the visual field, irrelevant memory contents represent a powerful class of factors that lead to involuntary attentional control.