Stimulus specific cortical activity associated with ignoring distraction during working memory encoding and maintenance

Charlotte Ashton, Andre D Gouws, Marcus Glennon, Abhishek Das, Yit-Keat Chen, Charlotte Chrisp, Ismail Felek, Theodore P Zanto, Fiona McNab*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Distraction disrupts Working Memory (WM) performance, but how the brain filters distraction is not known. One possibility is that neural activity associated with distractions is suppressed relative to a baseline/passive task (biased competition). Alternatively, distraction may be denied access to WM, with no suppression. Furthermore, behavioural work indicates separate mechanisms for ignoring distractions which occur (1) while we put information into WM (Encoding Distraction, ED) and (2) while we maintain already encoded information during the WM delay period (Delay Distraction, DD). Here we used fMRI in humans to measure category-sensitive cortical activity and probe the extent to which ED/DD mechanisms involve enhancement/suppression during a WM task. We observed significant enhancement of task-relevant activity, relative to a passive view task, which did not differ according to whether or when distractors appeared. For both ED and DD we found no evidence of suppression, but instead a robust increase in stimulus specific activity in response to additional stimuli presented during the passive view task, which was not seen for the WM task, when those additional stimuli were to be ignored. The results indicate that ED/DD resistance does not necessarily involve suppression of distractor-related activity. Rather, a rise in distractor-associated activity is prevented when distractors are presented, supporting models of input gating, and providing a potential mechanism by which input-gating might be achieved.

Original languageEnglish
Article number8952
Number of pages12
JournalScientific Reports
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jun 2023

Bibliographical note

© 2023. The Author(s).


  • Humans
  • Memory, Short-Term/physiology
  • Attention/physiology
  • Brain/physiology
  • Cognition
  • Head

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