A probabilistic palimpsest model of visual short-term memory


Working memory plays a key role in cognition, and yet its mechanisms remain much debated. Human performance on memory tasks is severely limited; however, the two major classes of theory explaining the limits leave open questions about key issues such as how multiple simultaneously-represented items can be distinguished. We propose a palimpsest model, with the occurrent activity of a single population of neurons coding for several multi-featured items. Using a probabilistic approach to storage and recall, we show how this model can account for many qualitative aspects of existing experimental data. In our account, the underlying nature of a memory item depends entirely on the characteristics of the population representation, and we provide analytical and numerical insights into critical issues such as multiplicity and binding. We consider representations in which information about individual feature values is partially separate from the information about binding that creates single items out of multiple features. An appropriate balance between these two types of information is required to capture fully the different types of error seen in human experimental data. Our model provides the first principled account of misbinding errors. We also suggest a specific set of stimuli designed to elucidate the representations that subjects actually employ.

PLoS Computational Biology, 2015, 11(1): e1004003