Neural Architecture for Feature Binding in Visual Working Memory.


Binding refers to the operation that groups different features together into objects. We propose a neural architecture for feature binding in visual working memory that employs populations of neurons with conjunction responses. We tested this model using cued recall tasks, in which subjects had to memorize object arrays composed of simple visual features (color, orientation, and location). After a brief delay, one feature of one item was given as a cue, and the observer had to report, on a continuous scale, one or two other features of the cued item. Binding failure in this task is associated with swap errors, in which observers report an item other than the one indicated by the cue. We observed that the probability of swapping two items strongly correlated with the items' similarity in the cue feature dimension, and found a strong correlation between swap errors occurring in spatial and nonspatial report. The neural model explains both swap errors and response variability as results of decoding noisy neural activity, and can account for the behavioral results in quantitative detail. We then used the model to compare alternative mechanisms for binding nonspatial features. We found the behavioral results fully consistent with a model in which nonspatial features are bound exclusively via their shared location, with no indication of direct binding between color and orientation. These results provide evidence for a special role of location in feature binding, and the model explains how this special role could be realized in the neural system.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT The problem of feature binding is of central importance in understanding the mechanisms of working memory. How do we remember not only that we saw a red and a round object, but that these features belong together to a single object rather than to different objects in our environment? Here we present evidence for a neural mechanism for feature binding in working memory, based on encoding of visual information by neurons that respond to the conjunction of features. We find clear evidence that nonspatial features are bound via space: we memorize directly where a color or an orientation appeared, but we memorize which color belonged with which orientation only indirectly by virtue of their shared location.