The neural basis of precise visual short-term memory for complex recognisable objects.
Recent evidence suggests that visual short-term memory (VSTM) capacity estimated using simple objects, such as colours and oriented bars, may not generalise well to more naturalistic stimuli. More visual detail can be stored in VSTM when complex, recognisable objects are maintained compared to simple objects. It is not yet known if it is recognisability that enhances memory precision, nor whether maintenance of recognisable objects is achieved with the same network of brain regions supporting maintenance of simple objects. We used a novel stimulus generation method to parametrically warp photographic images along a continuum, allowing separate estimation of the precision of memory representations and the number of items retained. The stimulus generation method was also designed to create unrecognisable, though perceptually matched, stimuli, to investigate the impact of recognisability on VSTM. We adapted the widely-used change detection and continuous report paradigms for use with complex, photographic images. Across three functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiments, we demonstrated greater precision for recognisable objects in VSTM compared to unrecognisable objects. This clear behavioural advantage was not the result of recruitment of additional brain regions, or of stronger mean activity within the core network. Representational similarity analysis revealed greater variability across item repetitions in the representations of recognisable, compared to unrecognisable complex objects. We therefore propose that a richer range of neural representations support VSTM for complex recognisable objects.