Abstract

Multiple neural signals have been found to track the number of items stored in working memory (WM). These signals include oscillatory activity in the alpha band and slow-wave components in human EEG, both of which vary with storage loads and predict individual differences in WM capacity. However, recent evidence suggests that these two signals play distinct roles in spatial attention and item-based storage in WM. Here, we examine the hypothesis that sustained negative voltage deflections over parieto-occipital electrodes reflect the number of individuated items in WM, whereas oscillatory activity in the alpha frequency band (8–12 Hz) within the same electrodes tracks the attended positions in the visual display. We measured EEG activity while participants stored the orientation of visual elements that were either grouped by collinearity or not. This grouping manipulation altered the number of individuated items perceived while holding constant the number of locations occupied by visual stimuli. The negative slow wave tracked the number of items stored and was reduced in amplitude in the grouped condition. By contrast, oscillatory activity in the alpha frequency band tracked the number of positions occupied by the memoranda and was unaffected by perceptual grouping. Perceptual grouping, then, reduced the number of individuated representations stored in WM as reflected by the negative slow wave, whereas the location of each element was actively maintained as indicated by alpha power. These findings contribute to the emerging idea that distinct classes of EEG signals work in concert to successfully maintain on-line representations in WM.

This content is only available as a PDF.