No Evidence for an Item Limit in Change Detection

Shaiyan Keshvari, Ronald van den Berg, Wei Ji Ma

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Change detection is a classic paradigm that has been used for decades to argue that working memory can hold no more than a fixed number of items ("item-limit models"). Recent findings force us to consider the alternative view that working memory is limited by the precision in stimulus encoding, with mean precision decreasing with increasing set size ("continuous-resource models"). Most previous studies that used the change detection paradigm have ignored effects of limited encoding precision by using highly discriminable stimuli and only large changes. We conducted two change detection experiments (orientation and color) in which change magnitudes were drawn from a wide range, including small changes. In a rigorous comparison of five models, we found no evidence of an item limit. Instead, human change detection performance was best explained by a continuous-resource model in which encoding precision is variable across items and trials even at a given set size. This model accounts for comparison errors in a principled, probabilistic manner. Our findings sharply challenge the theoretical basis for most neural studies of working memory capacity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1002927
JournalPLoS computational biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Modeling and Simulation
  • Ecology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Computational Theory and Mathematics


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