Working memory (WM) is strongly influenced by attention. In visual WM tasks, recall performance can be improved by an attention-guiding cue presented before encoding (precue) or during maintenance (retrocue). Although precues and retrocues recruit a similar frontoparietal control network, the two are likely to exhibit some processing differences, because precues invite anticipation of upcoming information whereas retrocues may guide prioritization, protection, and selection of information already in mind. Here we explored the behavioral and electrophysiological differences between precueing and retrocueing in a new visual WM task designed to permit a direct comparison between cueing conditions. We found marked differences in ERP profiles between the precue and retrocue conditions. In line with precues primarily generating an anticipatory shift of attention toward the location of an upcoming item, we found a robust lateralization in late cue-evoked potentials associated with target anticipation. Retrocues elicited a different pattern of ERPs that was compatible with an early selection mechanism, but not with stimulus anticipation. In contrast to the distinct ERP patterns, alpha-band (8–14 Hz) lateralization was indistinguishable between cue types (reflecting, in both conditions, the location of the cued item). We speculate that, whereas alpha-band lateralization after a precue is likely to enable anticipatory attention, lateralization after a retrocue may instead enable the controlled spatiotopic access to recently encoded visual information.

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