Spatial Interference and Individual Differences in Looking at Nothing for Verbal Memory


People tend to look at uninformative, blank locations in space when retrieving information. This gaze behaviour, known as looking at nothing, is assumed to be driven by the use of spatial indices associated with external information. We investigated whether people form spatial indices and look at nothing when retrieving words from memory. Participants were simultaneously presented four words. During retrieval participants looked at the relevant, blank location, where the probe word had appeared previously, longer than the other blank locations. Additionally, word presentation was sometimes followed by a visual cue either co-located or not with the probe word. Valid cues functioned as visual reinforcement while invalid cues caused interference. Finally, participants with better visuospatial memory looked less at the relevant, blank location, suggesting a dynamic relationship between so-called “external” and “internal” memory. Overall findings suggest an automatic, instantaneous spatial indexing mechanism for words and a dynamic looking at nothing behaviour.

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