Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Working memory is thought to serve as a buffer for ongoing cognitive operations, even in tasks that have no obvious memory requirements. This conceptualization has been supported by dual-task experiments, in which interference is observed between a primary task involving short-term memory storage and a secondary task that presumably requires the same buffer as the primary task. Little or no interference is typically observed when the secondary task is very simple. Here, we test the hypothesis that even very simple tasks require the working memory buffer, but interference can be minimized by using activity-silent representations to store the information from the primary task. We tested this hypothesis using dual-task paradigm in which a simple discrimination task was interposed in the retention interval of a change detection task. We used contralateral delay activity (CDA) to track the active maintenance of information for the change detection task. We found that the CDA was massively disrupted after the interposed task. Despite this disruption of active maintenance, we found that performance in the change detection task was only slightly impaired, suggesting that activity-silent representations were used to retain the information for the change detection task. A second experiment replicated this result and also showed that automated discriminations could be performed without producing a large CDA disruption. Together, these results suggest that simple but non-automated discrimination tasks require the same processes that underlie active maintenance of information in working memory.