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J Vis. 2011 Oct 6;11(12). pii: 3. doi: 10.1167/11.12.3.

Object features fail independently in visual working memory: evidence for a probabilistic feature-store model.

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Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.


The world is composed of features and objects and this structure may influence what is stored in working memory. It is widely believed that the content of memory is object-based: Memory stores integrated objects, not independent features. We asked participants to report the color and orientation of an object and found that memory errors were largely independent: Even when one of the object's features was entirely forgotten, the other feature was often reported. This finding contradicts object-based models and challenges fundamental assumptions about the organization of information in working memory. We propose an alternative framework involving independent self-sustaining representations that may fail probabilistically and independently for each feature. This account predicts that the degree of independence in feature storage is determined by the degree of overlap in neural coding during perception. Consistent with this prediction, we found that errors for jointly encoded dimensions were less independent than errors for independently encoded dimensions.

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