Many everyday tasks require prioritizing some visual features over competing ones, both during the selection from the rich sensory input and while maintaining information in visual short-term memory (VSTM). Here, we show that observers can change priorities in VSTM when, initially, they attended to a different feature. Observers reported from memory the orientation of one of two spatially interspersed groups of black and white gratings. Using colored pre-cues (presented before stimulus onset) and retro-cues (presented after stimulus offset) predicting the to-be-reported group, we manipulated observers’ feature priorities independently during stimulus encoding and maintenance, respectively. Valid pre-cues reliably increased observers’ performance (reduced guessing, increased report precision) as compared to neutral ones; invalid pre-cues had the opposite effect. Valid retro-cues also consistently improved performance (by reducing random guesses), even if the unexpected group suddenly became relevant (invalid-valid condition). Thus, feature-based attention can reshape priorities in VSTM protecting information that would otherwise be forgotten.
Featured in Psychonomic Society: Fortifying memory after encoding: Internal and external attention and visual short-term memory