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Psychol Sci. 2009 Apr;20(4):423-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02322.x. Epub 2009 Mar 20.

Sudden death and gradual decay in visual working memory.

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  • 1Center for Mind & Brain,, University of California, Davis, CA 95618, USA. wwzhang@ucdavis.edu

Abstract

General Douglas MacArthur remarked that "old soldiers never die; they just fade away." For decades, researchers have concluded that visual working memories, like old soldiers, fade away gradually, becoming progressively less precise as they are retained for longer periods of time. However, these conclusions were based on threshold-estimation procedures in which the complete termination of a memory could artifactually produce the appearance of lower precision. Here, we use a recall-based visual working memory paradigm that provides separate measures of the probability that a memory is available and the precision of the memory when it is available. Using this paradigm, we demonstrate that visual working memory representations may be retained for several seconds with little or no loss of precision, but that they may terminate suddenly and completely during this period.

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