Recent research has suggested that short-term memory (STM) can be partitioned into three distinct states. By this model, a single item is held in the focus of attention making it available for immediate processing (focus of attention), a capacity-limited set of additional items is actively maintained for future processing (direct access region), and other recently presented information is passively active, but can nevertheless influence ongoing cognition (activated portion of long-term memory). While there is both behavioral and neural support for this 3-state model in verbal STM, it is unclear whether the model generalizes to non-verbal STM. Here, we tested a 3-state model of visual STM using fMRI. We found a triple dissociation of regions involved in the access of each hypothesized state. The inferior parietal cortex mediated access to the focus of attention, the medial temporal lobe (MTL) including the hippocampus mediated access to the direct access region, and the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC) mediated access to the activated portion of long-term memory. Direct comparison with previously collected verbal STM data revealed overlapping neural activations involved in the access of each state across different forms of content suggesting that mechanisms of access are domain general. These data support a 3-state model of STM.Highlights
▸ We tested whether visual short-term memory can be partitioned into distinct states. ▸ Inferior parietal activations correlated with accessing the focus of attention. ▸ Hippocampal activations correlated with accessing items within capacity-limits. ▸ Ventrolateral prefrontal activations correlated with accessing supra-capacity items. ▸ The triple dissociation supports a 3-state model of visual short-term memory.