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Christopher J. Bates, Rachel A. Lerch, Chris R. Sims, Robert A. Jacobs; Adaptive allocation of human visual working memory capacity during statistical and categorical learning. Journal of Vision 2019;19(2):11. doi: https://doi.org/10.1167/19.2.11.
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Human brains are finite, and thus have bounded capacity. An efficient strategy for a capacity-limited agent is to continuously adapt by dynamically reallocating capacity in a task-dependent manner. Here we study this strategy in the context of visual working memory (VWM). People use their VWM stores to remember visual information over seconds or minutes. However, their memory performances are often error-prone, presumably due to VWM capacity limits. We hypothesize that people attempt to be flexible and robust by strategically reallocating their limited VWM capacity based on two factors: (a) the statistical regularities (e.g., stimulus feature means and variances) of the to-be-remembered items, and (b) the requirements of the task that they are attempting to perform. The latter specifies, for example, which types of errors are costly versus irrelevant for task performance. These hypotheses are formalized within a normative computational modeling framework based on rate-distortion theory, an extension of conventional Bayesian approaches that uses information theory to study rate-limited (or capacity-limited) processes. Using images of plants that are naturalistic and precisely controlled, we carried out two sets of experiments. Experiment 1 found that when a stimulus dimension (the widths of plants' leaves) was assigned a distribution, subjects adapted their VWM performances based on this distribution. Experiment 2 found that when one stimulus dimension (e.g., leaf width) was relevant for distinguishing plant categories but another dimension (leaf angle) was irrelevant, subjects' responses in a memory task became relatively more sensitive to the relevant stimulus dimension. Together, these results illustrate the task-dependent robustness of VWM, thereby highlighting the dependence of memory on learning.
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