Emin Orhan, Robert Jacobs
Extensive evidence suggests that items are not encoded independently in visual short-term memory (VSTM). However, previous research has not quantitatively considered how the encoding of an item influences the encoding of other items. Here, we model the dependencies among VSTM representations using a multivariate Gaussian distribution with a stimulus-dependent mean and covariance matrix. We report the results of an experiment designed to determine the specific form of the stimulus-dependence of the mean and the covariance matrix. We find that the magnitude of the covariance between the representations of two items is a monotonically decreasing function of the difference between the items' feature values, similar to a Gaussian process with a distance-dependent, stationary kernel function. We further show that this type of covariance function can be explained as a natural consequence of encoding multiple stimuli in a population of neurons with correlated responses.