Terms of the debate on the format and structure of visual memory

May 28, 2014

Our ability to actively maintain information in visual memory is strikingly limited. There is considerable debate about why this is so. As with many questions in psychology, the debate is framed dichotomously: Is visual working memory limited because it is supported by only a small handful of discrete “slots” into which visual representations are placed, or is it because there is an insufficient supply of a “resource” that is flexibly shared among visual representations? Here, we argue that this dichotomous framing obscures a set of at least eight underlying questions. Separately considering each question reveals a rich hypothesis space that will be useful for building a comprehensive model of visual working memory. The questions regard (1) an upper limit on the number of represented items, (2) the quantization of the memory commodity, (3) the relationship between how many items are stored and how well they are stored, (4) whether the number of stored items completely determines the fidelity of a representation (vs. fidelity being stochastic or variable), (5) the flexibility with which the memory commodity can be assigned or reassigned to items, (6) the format of the memory representation, (7) how working memories are formed, and (8) how memory representations are used to make responses in behavioral tasks. We reframe the debate in terms of these eight underlying questions, placing slot and resource models as poles in a more expansive theoretical space.