Shawn Schwartz, PhD student with Anthony Wagner in the Department of Psychology
Title: Leveraging signals of preparatory sustained attention to optimize episodic memory precision
Abstract: Episodic memories afford us both a window into the past and the ability to make predictions about the future. Sustained attention is considered necessary for the successful goal-directed expression of episodic memories, with recent evidence indicating that moment-to-moment fluctuations in preparatory sustained attention, as assayed by pupillometry and scalp EEG (posterior alpha power), correlate with goal-directed item recognition and source memory failures when measured in the tonic periods immediately preceding memory retrieval events. Despite the known correlative relations between attention and memory, there lacks clear evidence of a causal relationship between moment-to-moment preparatory attention and the ability to both successfully discriminate old (i.e., previously learned) from new visual information, as well as recollect precise details of an episodic memory. As part of my larger research aims, I am currently developing a closed-loop attention intervention paradigm, using real-time attention-reorientation, to test the causal role of preparatory attention for effective cognitive performance –– my FYP presented in this talk was my first investigation of how trial-to-trial tonic fluctuations in sustained attention, in the moment just prior to remembering, relate to item recognition and recollection precision for visual objects previously encoded in an associated color. Trial-level recognition memory was assayed via hits/misses from high-/low-confidence old/new judgements made on previously learned objects (presented in grayscale), which were intermixed with new objects. For objects recognized as “old” - regardless of confidence - participants were probed to indicate their memory of the color the object had originally been presented in during encoding, using a well-established, perceptually uniform 360-AFC color-wheel precision task. Analyses suggest that the hypothesized preparatory attention effects (i.e., tonic fluctuations in sustained attention in the 1-second prior to the onset of the recognition memory probe) in this specific paradigm were not well powered, and within- and between-subjects variability in our assays of preparatory attention may have reduced our ability to detect the expected correlation between attention and memory. Furthermore, there was no evidence of preparatory attention effects on subsequent recollection precision, which we posit may have been impacted by a feature of this particular task's design. These findings raise the possibility of differential attention effects depending on the nature of memory expression, and set the stage for exploration of the causal influence of readiness-to-remember attentional processes on the retrieval of mnemonic evidence and/or on memory-guided decision making.