Of "what" and "where" in a natural search task: Active object handling supports object location memory beyond the object's identity.
Draschkow D., Võ ML-H.
Looking for as well as actively manipulating objects that are relevant to ongoing behavioral goals are intricate parts of natural behavior. It is, however, not clear to what degree these two forms of interaction with our visual environment differ with regard to their memory representations. In a real-world paradigm, we investigated if physically engaging with objects as part of a search task influences identity and position memory differently for task-relevant versus irrelevant objects. Participants equipped with a mobile eye tracker either searched for cued objects without object interaction (Find condition) or actively collected the objects they found (Handle condition). In the following free-recall task, identity memory was assessed, demonstrating superior memory for relevant compared to irrelevant objects, but no difference between the Handle and Find conditions. Subsequently, location memory was inferred via times to first fixation in a final object search task. Active object manipulation and task-relevance interacted in that location memory for relevant objects was superior to irrelevant ones only in the Handle condition. Including previous object recall performance as a covariate in the linear mixed-model analysis of times to first fixation allowed us to explore the interaction between remembered/forgotten object identities and the execution of location memory. Identity memory performance predicted location memory in the Find but not the Handle condition, suggesting that active object handling leads to strong spatial representations independent of object identity memory. We argue that object handling facilitates the prioritization of relevant location information, but this might come at the cost of deprioritizing irrelevant information.