Working memory prioritization impacts neural recovery from distraction.Cortex 2019; 121:225-238C
The ability to protect goal-relevant information from disruption over short intervals is a hallmark of working memory. Recent behavioral data suggest that high-priority items in working memory are more vulnerable to disruption. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to evaluate the hypothesis that prioritization of working memories might impact the recovery of their neural representation(s) after distraction. A delay-period retrospective cue informed participants which of two memory items (a face or a scene) to prioritize during a first delay period. Consistent with prior work, and confirming successful prioritization, multivoxel pattern classifier evidence in perceptual brain regions was higher for cued versus uncued memory items. A distraction task was then imposed before a second retrospective cue informed participants to either "stay" remembering the previously cued item or "switch" to the previously uncued item. This allowed for the evaluation of recovery for high-priority items (on stay trials) and also low-priority items (on switch trials). Classifiers showed successful reinstatement of both high- and low-priority items after distraction, but only low-priority items recovered to their pre-distraction representational levels. Moreover, the degree of prioritization before distraction predicted the amount of disruption for high-priority items after distraction, suggesting that the more a participant prioritized the cued item, the greater the impact of distraction. Our data provide neural evidence that prioritizing working memory information in perceptual regions makes that information more vulnerable to disruption.