Release of inattentional blindness by high working memory load: Elucidating the relationship between working memory and selective attention

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Colleges, School and Institutes

External organisations

  • University of London
  • Sensorimotor Development Research Unit


An unexpected stimulus often remains unnoticed if attention is focused elsewhere. This inattentional blindness has been shown to be increased under conditions of high memory load. Here we show that increasing working memory load can also have the opposite effect of reducing inattentional blindness (i.e., improving stimulus detection) if stimulus detection is competing for attention with a concurrent visual task. Participants were required to judge which of two lines was the longer while holding in working memory either one digit (low load) or six digits (high load). An unexpected visual stimulus was presented once alongside the line judgment task. Detection of the unexpected stimulus was significantly improved under conditions of higher working memory load. This improvement in performance prompts the striking conclusion that an effect of cognitive load is to increase attentional spread, thereby enhancing our ability to detect perceptual stimuli to which we would normally be inattentionally blind under less taxing cognitive conditions. We discuss the implications of these findings for our understanding of the relationship between working memory and selective attention.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)400-408
Number of pages9
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2011