Multiple neural states of representation in short-term memory? It's a matter of attention

Front Hum Neurosci. 2014 Jan 23;8:5. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00005. eCollection 2014.


Short-term memory (STM) refers to the capacity-limited retention of information over a brief period of time, and working memory (WM) refers to the manipulation and use of that information to guide behavior. In recent years it has become apparent that STM and WM interact and overlap with other cognitive processes, including attention (the selection of a subset of information for further processing) and long-term memory (LTM-the encoding and retention of an effectively unlimited amount of information for a much longer period of time). Broadly speaking, there have been two classes of memory models: systems models, which posit distinct stores for STM and LTM (Atkinson and Shiffrin, 1968; Baddeley and Hitch, 1974); and state-based models, which posit a common store with different activation states corresponding to STM and LTM (Cowan, 1995; McElree, 1996; Oberauer, 2002). In this paper, we will focus on state-based accounts of STM. First, we will consider several theoretical models that postulate, based on considerable behavioral evidence, that information in STM can exist in multiple representational states. We will then consider how neural data from recent studies of STM can inform and constrain these theoretical models. In the process we will highlight the inferential advantage of multivariate, information-based analyses of neuroimaging data (fMRI and electroencephalography (EEG)) over conventional activation-based analysis approaches (Postle, in press). We will conclude by addressing lingering questions regarding the fractionation of STM, highlighting differences between the attention to information vs. the retention of information during brief memory delays.

Keywords: attention; multivariate pattern analysis; representational states; short-term memory; unattended memory items.

Publication types

  • Review