Surprising perceptual events recruit a fronto-basal ganglia mechanism for inhibition, which suppresses motor activity following surprise. A recent study found that this inhibitory mechanism also disrupts the maintenance of verbal working memory (WM) after surprising tones. However, it is unclear whether this same mechanism also relates to surprise-related interruptions of non-verbal WM. We tested this hypothesis using a change-detection task, in which surprising tones impaired visuospatial WM. Participants also performed a stop-signal task (SST). We used independent component analysis and single-trial scalp-electroencephalogram to test whether the same inhibitory mechanism that reflects motor inhibition in the SST relates to surprise-related visuospatial WM decrements, as was the case for verbal WM. As expected, surprising tones elicited activity of the inhibitory mechanism, and this activity correlated strongly with the trial-by-trial level of surprise. However, unlike for verbal WM, the activity of this mechanism was unrelated to visuospatial WM accuracy. Instead, inhibition-independent activity that immediately succeeded the inhibitory mechanism was increased when visuospatial WM was disrupted. This shows that surprise-related interruptions of visuospatial WM are not effected by the same inhibitory mechanism that interrupts verbal WM, and instead provides evidence for a 2-stage model of distraction.

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