What mechanism underlies serial order memory? Studying preverbal serial memory shows that macaque monkeys reproducing a sequence of items can acquire knowledge of item ordinal position. In our previous experiment, macaques were repeatedly presented with image lists (first shown sequentially and then simultaneously on a touch screen together with a distractor chosen randomly from other lists). The task was to touch list images in the correct order. The monkeys' natural tendency was to categorize images by their ordinal position or number because their most common error was touching the distractor when it had the same ordinal number (in its own list) as the correct image. Item-to-item associations were used to complete the categorization strategy. Proposing a dynamic image-salience hypothesis for serial recall (based on category-to-image influence and a salience computation for identifying touch targets), we now study the category label characteristics in the context of this hypothesis.
We found that these category labels are absolute, ordinal-number-based categories (first, second, etc.), not relative memorized as relative distance from the beginning and the end of the list, and not based on fixed ranking of reward contingency/image familiarity. Even isolated from item–item associations, the categories demonstrate category tuning (as well as the corresponding overlap of adjacent ordinal number codes). Moreover, monkeys choose images by proximity of their category to the current touch number, irrespective of the accuracy of the preceding choice. Category tuning itself is symmetric relative to correct ordinal position, but is skewed by other factors (reward, etc.). Tuning width increases with list length, with a concurrent increased use of item-to-item associations for determining touch order.