The capacity of visual working memory for features and conjunctions

Abstract

Short-term memory storage can be divided into separate subsystems for verbal information and visual information1, and recent studies have begun to delineate the neural substrates of these working-memory systems2,3,4,5,6. Although the verbal storage system has been well characterized, the storage capacity of visual working memory has not yet been established for simple, suprathreshold features or for conjunctions of features. Here we demonstrate that it is possible to retain information about only four colours or orientations in visual working memory at one time. However, it is also possible to retain both the colour and the orientation of four objects, indicating that visual working memory stores integrated objects rather than individual features. Indeed, objects defined by a conjunction of four features can be retained in working memory just as well as single-feature objects, allowing sixteen individual features to be retained when distributed across four objects. Thus, the capacity of visual working memory must be understood in terms of integrated objects rather than individual features, which places significant constraints on cognitive and neurobiological models of the temporary storage of visual information7.

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Figure 1: Example stimulus arrays (not drawn to scale) and performance on the sequential comparison task.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by grants from the McDonnell-Pew Program in Cognitive Neuroscience and the National Institute of Mental Health.

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Correspondence to Steven J. Luck.

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Luck, S., Vogel, E. The capacity of visual working memory for features and conjunctions. Nature 390, 279–281 (1997). https://doi.org/10.1038/36846

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