Working Memory Replay Prioritizes Weakly Attended Events


One view of working memory posits that maintaining a series of events requires their sequential and equal mnemonic replay. Another view is that the content of working memory maintenance is prioritized by attention. We decoded the dynamics for retaining a sequence of items using magnetoencephalography, wherein participants encoded sequences of three stimuli depicting a face, a manufactured object, or a natural item and maintained them in working memory for 5000 ms. Memory for sequence position and stimulus details were probed at the end of the maintenance period. Decoding of brain activity revealed that one of the three stimuli dominated maintenance independent of its sequence position or category; and memory was enhanced for the selectively replayed stimulus. Analysis of event-related responses during the encoding of the sequence showed that the selectively replayed stimuli were determined by the degree of attention at encoding. The selectively replayed stimuli had the weakest initial encoding indexed by weaker visual attention signals at encoding. These findings do not rule out sequential mnemonic replay but reveal that attention influences the content of working memory maintenance by prioritizing replay of weakly encoded events. We propose that the prioritization of weakly encoded stimuli protects them from interference during the maintenance period, whereas the more strongly encoded stimuli can be retrieved from long-term memory at the end of the delay period.