To achieve our moment-to-moment goals, we must often keep information temporarily in mind. Yet, this working memory (WM) may compete with demands for our attention in the environment. Attentional and WM functions are thought to operate by similar underlying principles, and they often engage overlapping fronto-parietal brain regions. In a recent fMRI study, bilateral parietal cortex BOLD activity displayed an interaction between WM and visual attention dual-task demands. However, prior studies also suggest that left and right parietal cortices make unique contributions to WM and attentional functions. Moreover, behavioral performance often shows no interaction between concurrent WM and attentional demands. Thus, the scope of reciprocity between WM and attentional functions and the specific contribution that parietal cortex makes to these functions both remain unresolved. Here, we took a causal approach, targeting brain regions that are implicated in shared processing between WM and visual attention, to better characterize how those regions contribute to behavior. We first examined whether behavioral indices of WM and visual search differentially correlate with left and right parietal dual-task BOLD responses. Then, we delivered TMS over fMRI-guided left and right parietal sites during dual-task WM–visual search performance. Only right-parietal TMS influenced visual search behavior, but the stimulation either helped or harmed search depending on the current WM load. Therefore, whereas the left and right parietal contributions were distinct here, attentional and WM functions were codependent. Right parietal cortex seems to hold a privileged role in visual search behavior, consistent with prior findings, but the current results reveal that behavior may be sensitive to the interaction between visual search and WM load only when normal parietal activity is perturbed. The parietal response to heightened WM and attentional demands may therefore serve to protect against dual-task interference.

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Author notes

This submission builds directly upon an earlier article in Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience: Kiyonaga, A., Dowd, E. W., & Egner, T. (2017). Neural representation of working memory content is modulated by visual attentional demand. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 29, 2011–2024. https://doi.org/10.1162/jocn_a_01174.