Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

, Volume 25, Issue 2, pp 651–657 | Cite as

Unexpected events disrupt visuomotor working memory and increase guessing

  • R. Dawn Finzi
  • Bradley R. Postle
  • Timothy F. Brady
  • Adam R. Aron
Brief Report


When an unexpected event, such as a car horn honking, occurs in daily life, it often disrupts our train of thought. In the lab, this effect was recently modeled with a task in which verbal working memory (WM) was disrupted by unexpected auditory events (Wessel et al. in Nature Communications, 7, 11195, 2016). Here we tested whether this effect extends to a different type of WM—namely, visuomotor. We found that unexpected auditory events similarly decremented visuomotor WM. Moreover, this effect persisted for many more trials than had previously been shown for verbal WM, and the effect occurred for two different types of unexpected auditory events. Furthermore, we found that unexpected events decremented WM by decreasing the quantity, but not necessarily the quality, of items stored. These results showed an impact of unexpected events on visuomotor WM that was statistically robust and endured across time. They also showed that the effect was based on an increase in guessing, consistent with a neuroscience-inspired theory that unexpected events “wipe out” WM by stopping the ongoing maintenance of the trace. This new task paradigm is an excellent vehicle for further explorations of distractibility.


Inhibitory control Unexpected events Working memory 


Author note

The authors thank Fabrice Parmentier and Sirawaj Itthiipuripat for helpful advice on the task design, and Francesco Marini for programming. This research was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health (R21 NS085543) and the James S. McDonnell Foundation (#220020375).


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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • R. Dawn Finzi
    • 1
  • Bradley R. Postle
    • 2
  • Timothy F. Brady
    • 1
  • Adam R. Aron
    • 1
  1. 1.Psychology DepartmentUniversity of California, San DiegoLa JollaUSA
  2. 2.Psychology DepartmentUniversity of Wisconsin–MadisonMadisonUSA

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