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Simon D. Lilburn, Philip L. Smith, David K. Sewell; The separable effects of feature precision and item load in visual short-term memory. Journal of Vision 2019;19(1):2. doi: 10.1167/19.1.2.
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Visual short-term memory (VSTM) has been described as being limited by the number of discrete visual objects, the aggregate quantity of information across multiple visual objects, or some combination of the two. Many recent studies examining these capacity limitations have shown that increasing the number of items in VSTM increases the frequency and magnitude of errors in a participant's recall of the stimulus. This increase in response dispersion has been interpreted as a loss of precision in an item's representation as the number of items in memory increases, possibly due to a change in the tuning of the underlying representation. However, increased response dispersion can also be caused by a reduction in the total memory strength available for decision making as a consequence of a reduction in the total amount of a fixed resource representing a stimulus. We investigated the effects of load on the precision of memory representations in a fine orientation discrimination task. Accuracy was well captured by extending a simple sample-size model of VSTM, using a tuning function to account for the effect of orientation precision on performance. The best model of the data was one in which the item strength decreased progressively with memory load at all stimulus exposure durations but in which tuning bandwidth was invariant. Our results imply that memory strength and feature precision are experimentally dissociable attributes of VSTM.
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