Uncertainty is maintained and used in working memory

Aspen H. Yoo, Luigi Acerbi, Wei Ji Ma

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


What are the contents of working memory? In both behavioral and neural computational models, a working memory representation is typically described by a single number, namely, a point estimate of a stimulus. Here, we asked if people also maintain the uncertainty associated with a memory and if people use this uncertainty in subsequent decisions. We collected data in a two-condition orientation change detection task; while both conditions measured whether people used memory uncertainty, only one required maintaining it. For each condition, we compared an optimal Bayesian observer model, in which the observer uses an accurate representation of uncertainty in their decision, to one in which the observer does not. We find that this “Use Uncertainty” model fits better for all participants in both conditions. In the first condition, this result suggests that people use uncertainty optimally in a working memory task when that uncertainty information is available at the time of decision, confirming earlier results. Critically, the results of the second condition suggest that this uncertainty information was maintained in working memory. We test model variants and find that our conclusions do not depend on our assumptions about the observer's encoding process, inference process, or decision rule. Our results provide evidence that people have uncertainty that reflects their memory precision on an item-specific level, maintain this information over a working memory delay, and use it implicitly in a way consistent with an optimal observer. These results challenge existing computational models of working memory to update their frameworks to represent uncertainty.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-19
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of vision
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2021


  • Bayesian observer
  • optimal
  • uncertainty
  • visual working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ophthalmology
  • Sensory Systems


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