Individual representations in visual working memory inherit ensemble properties

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Description: Prevailing theories of visual working memory assume that each encoded item is stored or forgotten as a separate unit independent from other items. Here, we show that items are not independent, and that the recalled orientation of an individual item is strongly influenced by the summary statistical representation of all items (ensemble representation). We find that not only is memory for an individual orientation substantially biased towards the mean orientation, but the precision of memory for an individual item also closely tracks the precision with which people store the mean orientation (which is, in turn, correlated with the physical range of orientations). Thus, individual items are reported more precisely when items on a trial are more similar. Moreover, the narrower the range of orientations present on a trial, the more participants appear to rely on the mean orientation as representative of all individuals. Our results suggest that the information about a set of items is represented hierarchically, and that ensemble information can be an important source of information to constrain uncertain information about individuals.

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