The Distributed Nature of Working Memory

Trends Cogn Sci. 2017 Feb;21(2):111-124. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2016.12.007. Epub 2017 Jan 4.


Studies in humans and non-human primates have provided evidence for storage of working memory contents in multiple regions ranging from sensory to parietal and prefrontal cortex. We discuss potential explanations for these distributed representations: (i) features in sensory regions versus prefrontal cortex differ in the level of abstractness and generalizability; and (ii) features in prefrontal cortex reflect representations that are transformed for guidance of upcoming behavioral actions. We propose that the propensity to produce persistent activity is a general feature of cortical networks. Future studies may have to shift focus from asking where working memory can be observed in the brain to how a range of specialized brain areas together transform sensory information into a delayed behavioral response.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain
  • Brain Mapping
  • Humans
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*