Real-world objects are not stored in holistic representations in visual working memory

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Description: When storing multiple objects in visual working memory, observers sometimes misattribute perceived features to incorrect locations or objects. These misattributions are called binding errors (or swaps) and have been previously demonstrated mostly in simple objects whose features are easy to encode independently and arbitrarily chosen, like colors and orientations. Here, we tested whether similar swaps can occur with real-world objects, where the connection between features is meaningful rather than arbitrary. In Experiments 1 and 2, observers were simultaneously shown four items from two object categories. Within a category, the two exemplars could be presented in either the same or different states (e.g., open/closed; full/empty). After a delay, both exemplars from one of the categories were probed, and participants had to recognize which exemplar went with which state. We found good memory for state information and exemplar information on their own, but a significant memory decrement for exemplar-state combinations, suggesting that binding was difficult for observers and “swap” errors occurred even for meaningful real-world objects. In Experiment 3, we used the same tasks, but on half of the trials, the locations of the exemplars were swapped at test. We found that participants ascribed incorrect states to exemplars more frequently when the locations of exemplars were swapped. We concluded that the internal features of real-world objects are not perfectly bound in working memory, and location updates impair the object representation. Overall, we provide evidence that even real-world objects are not stored in an entirely unitized format in working memory.

License: CC-By Attribution 4.0 International


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