The brain has finite processing resources so that, as tasks become harder, performance degrades. Where do the limits on these resources come from? We focus on a variety of capacity-limited buffers related to attention, recognition, and memory that we claim have a two-dimensional 'map' architecture, where individual items compete for cortical real estate. This competitive format leads to capacity limits that are flexible, set by the nature of the content and their locations within an anatomically delimited space. We contrast this format with the standard 'slot' architecture and its fixed capacity. Using visual spatial attention and visual short-term memory as case studies, we suggest that competitive maps are a concrete and plausible architecture that limits cognitive capacity across many domains.
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