Joint representation of working memory and uncertainty in human cortex

Hsin Hung Li, Thomas C. Sprague, Aspen H. Yoo, Wei Ji Ma, Clayton E. Curtis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Neural representations of visual working memory (VWM) are noisy, and thus, decisions based on VWM are inevitably subject to uncertainty. However, the mechanisms by which the brain simultaneously represents the content and uncertainty of memory remain largely unknown. Here, inspired by the theory of probabilistic population codes, we test the hypothesis that the human brain represents an item maintained in VWM as a probability distribution over stimulus feature space, thereby capturing both its content and uncertainty. We used a neural generative model to decode probability distributions over memorized locations from fMRI activation patterns. We found that the mean of the probability distribution decoded from retinotopic cortical areas predicted memory reports on a trial-by-trial basis. Moreover, in several of the same mid-dorsal stream areas, the spread of the distribution predicted subjective trial-by-trial uncertainty judgments. These results provide evidence that VWM content and uncertainty are jointly represented by probabilistic neural codes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3699-3712.e6
Issue number22
StatePublished - Nov 17 2021


  • Bayesian inference
  • computational modeling
  • confidence
  • fMRI
  • uncertainty
  • working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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