Reassessing the Evidence for Capacity Limits in Neural Signals Related to Working Memory.
In 2004, two landmark studies described the discovery of brain imaging (functional magnetic resonance imaging and electroencephalography) signals that increase with the number of items held in visual working memory (WM). These studies claimed that the signals leveled off (plateaued) once the number of memoranda reached the capacity of WM, as estimated by the prevailing model of the time. However, alternative models were not considered, and changing concepts of WM in the more than a decade since these studies were published necessitate a re-evaluation of their findings; newer models that provide the most accurate account of behavioral data do not incorporate a fixed limit on the number of items stored. Furthermore, an important claim made about the original studies, that signals plateau at each individual's estimated capacity, has never been tested. Here, we pit the plateau model of signal strength against an alternative, saturation model, a biophysically plausible account in which signals increase continuously without plateau. We show that the saturation model provides a better description of the original data, challenging the assumption that imaging results provide evidence for a fixed item limit in WM.