Visual working memory directly alters perception


Visual working memory (VWM), the ability to temporarily maintain and manipulate information, underlies a variety of critical high-level behaviours from directing attention1,2,3,4 to making complex decisions5. Here we show that its impact extends to even the most basic levels of perceptual processing, directly interacting with and even distorting the physical appearance of visual features. This interference results from and can be predicted by the recruitment of posterior perceptual cortices to maintain information in VWM6,7,8,9, which causes an overlap with the neuronal populations supporting perceptual processing10,11,12,13,14,15. Across three sets of experiments, we demonstrated bidirectional interference between VWM and low-level perception. Specifically, for both maintained colours and orientations, presenting a distractor created bias in VWM representation depending on the similarity between incoming and maintained information, consistent with the known tuning curves for these features. Moreover, holding an item in mind directly altered the appearance of new stimuli, demonstrated by changes in psychophysical discrimination thresholds. Thus, as a consequence of sharing the early visual cortices, what you see and what you are holding in mind are intertwined at even the most fundamental stages of processing.

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Fig. 1: Bidirectional interference between VWM and selective attention.
Fig. 2: Ongoing perception alters VWM representation.
Fig. 3: Testing the impact from VWM to perception in experiment 3.
Fig. 4: VWM changes the appearance of colour and orientation, reflected by the changes in discrimination thresholds.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available in the Open Science Framework at

Code availability

The custom code developed for this study is available in the Open Science Framework at


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We thank the colleagues in the psychology department of George Washington University for their helpful discussion. Especially, we thank S. Shomstein, S. Mitroff and M. Behrmann for their insightful comments on this manuscript. This research project was supported by start-up funds granted to D.J.K. by GWU. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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C.T. and D.J.K. designed the experiments. C.T. collected the data and performed analysis. C.T. and D.J.K. wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Chunyue Teng.

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Teng, C., Kravitz, D.J. Visual working memory directly alters perception. Nat Hum Behav 3, 827–836 (2019).

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