Working memory: functional neural states for guiding future behaviour

Abstract: Our ability to hold information in mind for short time periods depends on working memory (WM). WM provides the functional backbone to high-level cognition, allowing us to perform complex actions based on time-extended goals and contextual contingencies. Standard models of WM propose that the brain maintains stable activity states that represent previous input. However, I argue that WM is not a simple representation of past experience, but constitutes a functional state that is specialised for guiding future behaviour. A dynamic coding model reframes WM as a flexible shift in how the brain processes new information, rather than a representation of the past preserved in persistent activity. It is the functional behaviour of the neural state that is stable over time, not necessarily the measured patterns of activity. Here I consider EEG and MEG evidence for functionally defined states in WM, and implications for flexible decision-making in general.

Bio: Mark completed a combined BA/BSc(Hons) at the University of Melbourne, before undertaking a PhD at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge University. In 2007, Mark was elected to a Junior Research Fellowship at St John's College Oxford, working on attention and memory. Mark was awarded an MRC Career Development Fellowship in 2012 to study the neural basis of selective inhibition as a principal investigator in Psychiatry and Experimental Psychology, and elected to a Science Research Fellowship at St John's College. In 2015, Mark was elected to a Tutorial Fellowship in Psychology at New College, and Associate Professor in Cognitive Neuroscience at the Department of Experimental Psychology.

Mark’s research explores the role of selective attention in perception, working memory and flexible decision-making. He is particularly interested in how these core cognitive functions are integrated for adaptive goal-directed behaviour. As head of the Attention Group at the Oxford Centre for Human Brain Activity (OHBA), he coordinates a programme of cognitive neuroscientific research to gain insights into the mechanisms that underpin high-level cognition in the human brain.

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