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Object maintenance beyond their visible parts in working memory

Siyi Chen, Thomas Töllner, Hermann J Müller, Markus Conci
Journal of Neurophysiology 2018 January 1, 119 (1): 347-355
Completion of a partially occluded object requires that a representation of the whole is constructed based on the information provided by the physically specified parts of the stimulus. Such processes of amodal completion rely on the generation and maintenance of a mental image that renders the completed object in visual working memory (VWM). The present study examined this relationship between VWM storage and processes of object completion. We recorded event-related potentials to track VWM maintenance by means of the contralateral delay activity (CDA) during a change detection task in which composite objects (notched shapes abutting an occluding shape) to be memorized were primed to induce either a globally completed object or a noncompleted, mosaic representation. The results revealed an effect of completion in VWM despite physically identical visual input: change detection was more accurate for completed compared with mosaic representations when observers were required to memorize two objects, and these differences were reduced with four memorized items. At the electrophysiological level, globally completed (vs. mosaic) objects gave rise to a corresponding increase in CDA amplitudes. These results indicate that although incorporating the occluded portions of the presented shapes requires mnemonic resources, the complete object representations thus formed in VWM improve change detection performance by providing a more simple, regular shape. Overall, these findings demonstrate that mechanisms of object completion modulate VWM, with the memory load being determined by the structured representations of the memorized stimuli. NEW & NOTEWORTHY This study shows that completion of partially occluded objects requires visual working memory (VWM) resources. In the experiment reported, we induced observers to memorize a given visual input either as completed or as noncompleted objects. The results revealed both a behavioral performance advantage for completed vs. noncompleted objects despite physically identical input, and an associated modulation of an electrophysiological component that reflects VWM object retention, thus indicating that constructing an integrated object consumes mnemonic resources.


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