Looking at nothing facilitates memory retrieval

Hintz, F., Meyer, A. S., & Huettig, F. (2012). Looking at nothing facilitates memory retrieval. Poster presented at Donders Discussions 2012, Nijmegen (NL).
When processing visual objects, we integrate visual, linguistic and spatial information to form an episodic trace. Re-activating one aspect of the episodic trace of an object re-activates the entire bundle making all integrated information available. Using the blank screen paradigm [1], researchers observed that upon processing spoken linguistic input, participants tended to make eye movements on a blank screen, fixating locations that were previously occupied by objects mentioned in the linguistic utterance or were related. Ferreira and colleagues [2] suggested that 'looking at nothing' facilitated memory retrieval. However, this claim lacks convincing empirical support. In Experiment 1, Dutch participants looked at four-object-displays. Three objects were related to a spoken target word. Given the target word 'beker' (beaker), the display featured a phonological (a bear), a shape (a bobbin), a semantic (a fork) competitor, and an unrelated distractor (an umbrella). Participants were asked to name the objects as fast as possible. Subsequently, the objects disappeared. Participants fixated the center of the screen and listened to the target word. They had to carry out a semantic judgment task (indicating in which position an object had appeared that was semantically related to the objects) or a visual shape similarity judgment (indicating the position of the object similar in shape to the target). In both conditions, we observed that participants re-fixated the empty target location before responding. The set-up of Experiment 2 was identical except that we asked participants to maintain fixating the center of the screen while listening to the spoken word and responding. Performance accuracy was significantly lower in Experiment 2 than in Experiment 1. The results indicate that memory retrieval for objects is impaired when participants are not allowed to look at relevant, though empty locations. [1] Altmann, G. (2004). Language-mediated eye movements in the absence of a visual world: the 'blank screen paradigm'. Cognition, 93(2), B79-B87. [2] Ferreira, F., Apel, J., & Henderson, J. M. (2008). Taking a new look at looking at nothing. Trends Cogn Sci, 12(11), 405-410.
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