Visual Working Memory Is Independent of the Cortical Spacing Between Memoranda.

23 Feb 2018

The sensory recruitment hypothesis states that visual short-term memory is maintained in the same visual cortical areas that initially encode a stimulus' features. Although it is well established that the distance between features in visual cortex determines their visibility, a limitation known as crowding, it is unknown whether short-term memory is similarly constrained by the cortical spacing of memory items. Here, we investigated whether the cortical spacing between sequentially presented memoranda affects the fidelity of memory in humans (of both sexes). In a first experiment, we varied cortical spacing by taking advantage of the log-scaling of visual cortex with eccentricity, presenting memoranda in peripheral vision sequentially along either the radial or tangential visual axis with respect to the fovea. In a second experiment, we presented memoranda sequentially either within or beyond the critical spacing of visual crowding, a distance within which visual features cannot be perceptually distinguished due to their nearby cortical representations. In both experiments and across multiple measures, we found strong evidence that the ability to maintain visual features in memory is unaffected by cortical spacing. These results indicate that the neural architecture underpinning working memory has properties inconsistent with the known behavior of sensory neurons in visual cortex. Instead, the dissociation between perceptual and memory representations supports a role of higher cortical areas such as posterior parietal or prefrontal regions or may involve an as yet unspecified mechanism in visual cortex in which stimulus features are bound to their temporal order.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Although much is known about the resolution with which we can remember visual objects, the cortical representation of items held in short-term memory remains contentious. A popular hypothesis suggests that memory of visual features is maintained via the recruitment of the same neural architecture in sensory cortex that encodes stimuli. We investigated this claim by manipulating the spacing in visual cortex between sequentially presented memoranda such that some items shared cortical representations more than others while preventing perceptual interference between stimuli. We found clear evidence that short-term memory is independent of the intracortical spacing of memoranda, revealing a dissociation between perceptual and memory representations. Our data indicate that working memory relies on different neural mechanisms from sensory perception.