Is working memory stored along a logarithmic timeline? Converging evidence from neuroscience, behavior and models

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A growing body of evidence suggests that short-term memory does not only store the identity of recently experienced stimuli, but also information about when they were presented. This representation of ‘what’ happened ‘when’ constitutes a neural timeline of recent past. Behavioral results suggest that people can sequentially access memories for the recent past, as if they were stored along a timeline to which attention is sequentially directed. In the short-term judgment of recency (JOR) task, the time to choose between two probe items depends on the recency of the more recent probe but not on the recency of the more remote probe. This pattern of results suggests a backward self-terminating search model. We review recent neural evidence from the macaque lateral prefrontal cortex (lPFC) (Tiganj, Cromer, Roy, Miller, & Howard, in press) and behavioral evidence from human JOR task (Singh & Howard, 2017) bearing on this question. Notably, both lines of evidence suggest that the timeline is logarithmically compressed as predicted by Weber-Fechner scaling. Taken together, these findings provide an integrative perspective on temporal organization and neural underpinnings of short-term memory.

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