If we search for an item, a representation of this item in our working memory guides attention to matching items in the visual scene. We can hold multiple items in working memory. Do all these items guide attention in parallel? We asked participants to detect a target object in a stream of objects while they maintained a second item in memory for a subsequent task. On some trials, we presented this memory item as a distractor in the stream. Subjects did not confuse these memory items with the search target, as the false alarm rate on trials where the memory item was presented in the stream was comparable to that on trials with only regular distractors. However, a comparable performance does not exclude that the memory items are processed differently from normal distractors. We therefore recorded event-related potentials (ERPs) evoked by search targets, memory items, and regular distractors. As expected, ERPs evoked by search targets differed from those evoked by distractors. Search targets elicited an occipital selection negativity and a frontal selection positivity indexing selective attention, whereas the P3b component, which reflects the matching of sensory events to memory representations, was enhanced for targets compared to distractors. Remarkably, the ERPs evoked by memory items were indistinguishable from the ERPs evoked by normal distractors. This implies that the search target has a special status in working memory that is not shared by the other items. These other, “accessory” items do not guide attention and are excluded from the matching process.

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