We examined how the temporal and spatial predictability of a task-irrelevant visual event affects the detection and memory of a visual item embedded in a continuously changing sequence. Participants observed 11 sequentially presented letters, during which a task-irrelevant visual event was either present or absent. Predictabilities of spatial location and temporal position of the event were controlled in 2 × 2 conditions. In the spatially predictable conditions, the event occurred at the same location within the stimulus sequence or at another location, while, in the spatially unpredictable conditions, it occurred at random locations. In the temporally predictable conditions, the event timing was fixed relative to the order of the letters, while in the temporally unpredictable condition; it could not be predicted from the letter order. Participants performed a working memory task and a target detection reaction time (RT) task. Memory accuracy was higher for a letter simultaneously presented at the same location as the event in the temporally unpredictable conditions, irrespective of the spatial predictability of the event. On the other hand, the detection RTs were only faster for a letter simultaneously presented at the same location as the event when the event was both temporally and spatially predictable. Thus, to facilitate ongoing detection processes, an event must be predictable both in space and time, while memory processes are enhanced by temporally unpredictable (i.e., surprising) events. Evidently, temporal predictability has differential effects on detection and memory of a visual item embedded in a sequence of images.
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