Adaptive behavior relies on the selection and prioritization of relevant sensory inputs from the external environment as well as from among internal sensory representations held in working memory. Recent behavioral evidence suggests that the classic distinction between voluntary (goal-driven) and involuntary (stimulus-driven) influences over attentional allocation also applies to the selection of internal representations held in working memory. In the current EEG study, we set out to investigate the neural dynamics associated with the competition between voluntary and involuntary control over the focus of attention in visual working memory. We show that when voluntary and involuntary factors compete for the internal focus of attention, prioritization of the appropriate item is delayed—as reflected both in delayed gaze biases that track internal selection and in delayed neural beta (15–25 Hz) dynamics that track the planning for the upcoming memory-guided manual action. We further show how this competition is paralleled—possibly resolved—by an increase in frontal midline theta (4–8 Hz) activity that, moreover, predicts the speed of ensuing memory-guided behavior. Finally, because theta increased following retrocues that effectively reduced working-memory load, our data unveil how frontal theta activity during internal attentional focusing tracks demands on cognitive control over and above working-memory load. Together, these data yield new insight into the neural dynamics that govern the focus of attention in visual working memory, and disentangle the contributions of frontal midline theta activity to the processes of control versus retention in working memory.

This content is only available as a PDF.
This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. For a full description of the license, please visit