Working memory is an essential component of cognition that facilitates goal-directed behavior. Famously, it is severely limited and performance suffers when memory load exceeds an individual's capacity. Modeling of visual working memory responses has identified two likely types of errors: guesses and swaps. Swap errors may arise from a misbinding between the features of different items. Alternatively, these errors could arise from memory noise in the feature dimension used for cueing a to-be-tested memory item, resulting in the wrong item being selected. Finally, it is possible that so-called swap errors actually reflect informed guessing, which could occur at the time of a cue, or alternatively, at the time of the response. Here, we combined behavioral response modeling and fMRI pattern analysis to test the hypothesis that swap errors involve the active maintenance of an incorrect memory item. After the encoding of six spatial locations, a retro-cue indicated which location would be tested after memory retention. On accurate trials, we could reconstruct a memory representation of the cued location in both early visual cortex and intraparietal sulcus. On swap error trials identified with mixture modeling, we were able to reconstruct a representation of the swapped location, but not of the cued location, suggesting the maintenance of the incorrect memory item before response. Moreover, participants subjectively responded with some level of confidence, rather than complete guessing, on a majority of swap error trials. Together, these results suggest that swap errors are not mere response-phase guesses, but instead result from failures of selection in working memory, contextual binding errors, or informed guesses, which produce active maintenance of incorrect memory representations.

You do not currently have access to this content.