Recent theories assert that visual working memory (WM) relies on the same attentional resources and sensory substrates as visual attention to external stimuli. Behavioral studies have observed competitive tradeoffs between internal (i.e., WM) and external (i.e., visual) attentional demands, and neuroimaging studies have revealed representations of WM content as distributed patterns of activity within the same cortical regions engaged by perception of that content. Although a key function of WM is to protect memoranda from competing input, it remains unknown how neural representations of WM content are impacted by incoming sensory stimuli and concurrent attentional demands. Here, we investigated how neural evidence for WM information is affected when attention is occupied by visual search—at varying levels of difficulty—during the delay interval of a WM match-to-sample task. Behavioral and fMRI analyses suggested that WM maintenance was impacted by the difficulty of a concurrent visual task. Critically, multivariate classification analyses of category-specific ventral visual areas revealed a reduction in decodable WM-related information when attention was diverted to a visual search task, especially when the search was more difficult. This study suggests that the amount of available attention during WM maintenance influences the detection of sensory WM representations.

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