Working memory is updated by reallocation of resources from obsolete to new items.
Visual working memory (VWM) resources are limited, placing constraints on how much visual information can be simultaneously retained. During visually guided activity, stored information can quickly become outdated, so updating mechanisms are needed to ensure the contents of memory remain relevant to current task goals. In particular, successful deallocation of resources from items that become obsolete is likely to be critical for maintaining the precision of those representations still in memory. The experiments in this study involved presenting two memory arrays of coloured disks in sequence. The appearance of the second array was a cue to replace, rehearse, or add a new colour to the colours in memory. We predicted that successful resource reallocation should result in comparable recall precision when an item was replaced or rehearsed, owing to the removal of pre-replacement features. In contrast, a failure to update WM should lead to comparable precision with a condition in which a new colour was added to memory. We identified a very small proportion (∼5%) of trials in which participants incorrectly reported a feature from the first array in place of its replacement in the second, which we interpreted as a failure to incorporate the information from the second display into memory. Once these trials were discounted, precision estimates were consistent with complete redistribution of resources in the case of updating a single item. We conclude that working memory can be efficiently updated when previous information becomes obsolete, but that this is a demanding active process that occasionally fails.
Wellcome Trust (106926/Z/15/Z)