Behavioral Prioritization Enhances Working Memory Precision and Neural Population Gain

Aspen H. Yoo, Alfredo Bolaños, Grace E. Hallenbeck, Masih Rahmati, Thomas C. Sprague, Clayton E. Curtis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Humans allocate visual working memory ( WM) resource according to behavioral relevance, resulting in more precise memories for more important items. Theoretically, items may be maintained by feature-tuned neural populations, where the relative gain of the populations encoding each item determines precision. To test this hypothesis, we compared the amplitudes of delay period activity in the different parts of retinotopic maps representing each of several WM items, predicting the amplitudes would track behavioral priority. Using fMRI, we scanned participants while they remembered the location of multiple items over a WM delay and then reported the location of one probed item using a memory-guided saccade. Importantly, items were not equally probable to be probed (0.6, 0.3, 0.1, 0.0), which was indicated with a precue. We analyzed fMRI activity in 10 visual field maps in occipital, parietal, and frontal cortex known to be important for visual WM. In early visual cortex, but not association cortex, the amplitude of BOLD activation within voxels corresponding to the retinotopic location of visual WM items increased with the priority of the item. Interestingly, these results were contrasted with a common finding that higher-level brain regions had greater delay period activity, demonstrating a dissociation between the absolute amount of activity in a brain area and the activity of different spatially selective populations within it. These results suggest that the distribution of WM resources according to priority sculpts the relative gains of neural populations that encode items, offering a neural mechanism for how prioritization impacts memory precision.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)365-379
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 5 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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