Abstract

Abstract In the dynamic environment we live in, the already limited information that human working memory can maintain needs to be constantly updated to optimally guide behaviour. Indeed, previous studies showed that leading up to a response, representations maintained in working memory representations are transformed continuously. This goes hand-in-hand with the removal of task-irrelevant items. However, does such removal also include the representations of stimuli as they were originally, prior to transformation? Here, we assessed the neural representation of task-relevant transformed representations, and the no-longer-relevant veridical representations they originated from. We applied multivariate pattern analysis to electroencephalographic data during maintenance of orientation gratings with and without mental rotation. During maintenance, we perturbed the representational network by means of a visual impulse stimulus, and were thus able to successfully decode veridical as well as imaginary, transformed orientation gratings from impulse-driven activity. The impulse response reflected only task-relevant (cued), but not task-irrelevant (uncued) items, suggesting that the latter were quickly discarded from working memory. By contrast, even though the original cued orientation gratings were also no longer task-relevant after mental rotation, these items continued to be represented next to the rotated ones, in different representational formats. This seemingly inefficient use of scarce working memory capacity was associated with reduced probe response times and may thus serve to increase precision and flexibility in guiding behaviour in dynamic environments.

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