For decades it has been assumed that sustained, elevated neural activity—the so-called active trace—is the neural correlate of the short-term retention of information. However, a recent fMRI study has suggested that this activity may be more related to attention than to retention. Specifically, a multivariate pattern analysis failed to find evidence that information that was outside the focus of attention, but nonetheless in STM, was retained in an active state. Here, we replicate and extend this finding by querying the neural signatures of attended versus unattended information within STM with electroencephalograpy (EEG), a method sensitive to oscillatory neural activity to which the previous fMRI study was insensitive. We demonstrate that in the delay-period EEG activity, there is information only about memory items that are also in the focus of attention. Information about items outside the focus of attention is not detectable. This result converges with the fMRI findings to suggest that, contrary to conventional wisdom, an active memory trace may be unnecessary for the short-term retention of information.

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