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December 2021

Hypothesized neural dynamics of working memory: several chunks might be marked simultaneously by harmonic frequencies within an octave band of brain waves

Journal/Book: Brain Res Bull. 1999; 50: 77-93.

Abstract: The capacity of working memory (WM) for up to about seven simple items holds true both for humans and other species, and may depend upon a common characteristic of mammalian brains. This paper develops the conjecture that each WM item is represented by a different brain wave frequency. The binding-by-synchrony hypothesis, now being widely investigated, holds that the attributes of a single cognitive element cohere because electroencephalogram (EEG) synchrony temporarily unifies their substrates, which are distributed among different brain regions. However, thought requires keeping active more than one cognitive element, or WM "chunk," at a time. If there is indeed a brain wave frequency code for cognitive item-representations that are copresent within the same volume of neural tissue, the simple mathematical relationships of harmonies could provide a basis for maintaining distinctness and for orderly changes. Thus, a basic aspect of music may provide a model for an essential characteristic of WM. Music is a communicative phenomenon of "intermediate complexity," more highly organized than the firing patterns of individual neurons but simpler than language. If there is a distinct level of neural processing within which the microscopic physiological activity of neurons self-organizes into the macroscopic psychology of the organism, it might require such moderate complexity. Some of the obvious properties of music--orderly mixing and transitions among limited numbers of signal lines-are suggestive of properties that a dynamic neural process might need in order to organize and reorganize WM markers, but there are a number of additional, nonobvious advantageous properties of summating sinusoids in music-like relationships. In particular, harmonies register a stable periodic signal in the briefest possible time. Thus, the regularity of summating sinusoids whose frequencies bear harmony ratios suggests a particular kind of tradeoff between parallel and serial processing. When there are few copresent waves, at EEG frequencies, this sort of parallel coding retains behaviorally meaningful brief periods. A necessary companion hypothesis is that the brain wave frequencies underlying WM are confined to a single octave; that is, the upper and lower bounds of the band are in the ratio of 2:1. This hypothesized restriction, suggested by an empirical property of EEG bands that has been widely reported but rarely commented upon, has the important property of precluding spurious difference rhythms. A restriction to an octave, of "harmonious" frequency-markers for WM items, also seems consistent with a great deal of behavioral data suggesting that WM comprises a rapidly fading trace process in which only up to three or four item-representations are strongly activated simultaneously. There is also an additional, sequential renewal-or-revision process, within which up to another three or four items are being actively refreshed by rehearsal or replaced. Such serial processing may involve a less stringent octave band crowding problem.

Keyword(s): Animal. Auditory Perception/physiology. Electroencephalography/psychology. Human. Memory, Short-Term/physiology. Periodicity. Rats. Support, Non-U.S. Gov't


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