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Psychol Sci. 2012 Jun;23(6):554-9. doi: 10.1177/0956797611431988. Epub 2012 Apr 23.

Human visual short-term memory precision can be varied at will when the number of retained items is low.

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  • 1Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, London WC1N 3AR, United Kingdom.


It has been debated whether human visual working memory is limited by the number of items or the precision with which they are represented. In the research reported here, we show that the precision of working memory can be flexibly and willfully controlled, but only if the number of retained items is low. Electroencephalographic recordings revealed that a neural marker for visual working memory (contralateral delay activity, or CDA) that is known to increase in amplitude with the number of retained items was also affected by the precision with which items were retained. However, willfully enhanced precision increased CDA amplitude only when the number of retained items was low. These results show that both the number and the (willfully controlled) precision of retained items constrain visual working memory: People can enhance the precision of their visual working memory, but only for a few items.

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