Storage in Visual Working Memory Recruits a Content-Independent Pointer System

Psychol Sci. 2022 Oct;33(10):1680-1694. doi: 10.1177/09567976221090923. Epub 2022 Aug 25.


Past work has shown that storage in working memory elicits stimulus-specific neural activity that tracks the stored content. Here, we present evidence for a distinct class of load-sensitive neural activity that indexes items without representing their contents per se. We recorded electroencephalogram (EEG) activity while adult human subjects stored varying numbers of items in visual working memory. Multivariate analysis of the scalp topography of EEG voltage enabled precise tracking of the number of individuated items stored and robustly predicted individual differences in working memory capacity. Critically, this signature of working memory load generalized across variations in both the type and number of visual features stored about each item, suggesting that it tracked the number of individuated memory representations and not the content of those memories. We hypothesize that these findings reflect the operation of a capacity-limited pointer system that supports on-line storage and attentive tracking.

Keywords: electroencephalogram; open data; open materials; spatiotemporal pointers; visual working memory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Humans
  • Memory, Short-Term*