Visual working memory (VWM) guides behavior by holding a set of active representations and modifying them according to changes in the environment. This updating process relies on a unique mapping between each VWM representation and an actual object in the environment. Here, we destroyed this mapping by either presenting a coherent object but then breaking it into independent parts or presenting an object but then abruptly replacing it with a different object. This allowed us to introduce the neural marker and behavioral consequence of an online resetting process in humans’ VWM. Across seven experiments, we demonstrate that this resetting process involves abandoning the old VWM contents because they no longer correspond to the objects in the environment. Then, VWM encodes the novel information and reestablishes the correspondence between the new representations and the objects. The resetting process was marked by a unique neural signature: a sharp drop in the amplitude of the electrophysiological index of VWM contents (the contralateral delay activity), presumably indicating the loss of the existent object-to-representation mappings. This marker was missing when an updating process occurred. Moreover, when tracking moving items,VWMfailed to detect salient changes in the object’s shape when these changes occurred during the resetting process. This happened despite the object being fully visible, presumably because the mapping between the object and a VWM representation was lost. Importantly, we show that resetting, its neural marker, and the behavioral cost it entails, are specific to situations that involve a destruction of the objects-to-representations correspondence.
- Event-related potentials
- Working memory