The Role of Working Memory in the Probabilistic Inference of Future Sensory Events

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Abstract

The ability to represent the emerging regularity of sensory information from the external environment has been thought to allow one to probabilistically infer future sensory occurrences and thus optimize behavior. However, the underlying neural implementation of this process is still not comprehensively understood. Through a convergence of behavioral and neurophysiological evidence, we establish that the probabilistic inference of future events is critically linked to people's ability to maintain the recent past in working memory. Magnetoencephalography recordings demonstrated that when visual stimuli occurring over an extended time series had a greater statistical regularity, individuals with higher working-memory capacity (WMC) displayed enhanced slow-wave neural oscillations in the θ frequency band (4–8 Hz.) prior to, but not during stimulus appearance. This prestimulus neural activity was specifically linked to contexts where information could be anticipated and influenced the preferential sensory processing for this visual information after its appearance. A separate behavioral study demonstrated that this process intrinsically emerges during continuous perception and underpins a realistic advantage for efficient behavioral responses. In this way, WMC optimizes the anticipation of higher level semantic concepts expected to occur in the near future.

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