Finding the answer in space: the mental whiteboard hypothesis on serial order in working memory

Elger Abrahamse, Jean-Philippe van Dijck, Steve Majerus, Wim Fias

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review


Various prominent models on serial order coding in working memory (WM) build on the notion that serial order is achieved by binding the various items to-be-maintained to fixed position markers. Despite being relatively successful in accounting for empirical observations and some recent neuro-imaging support, these models were largely formulated on theoretical grounds and few specifications have been provided with respect to the cognitive and/or neural nature of these position markers. Here we outline a hypothesis on a novel candidate mechanism to substantiate the notion of serial position markers. Specifically, we propose that serial order WM is grounded in the spatial attention system: (I) The position markers that provide multi-item WM with a serial context should be understood as coordinates within an internal, spatially defined system; (II) internal spatial attention is involved in searching through the resulting serial order representation; and (III) retrieval corresponds to selection by spatial attention. We sketch the available empirical support and discuss how the hypothesis may provide a parsimonious framework from which to understand a broad range of observations across behavioral, neural and neuropsychological domains. Finally, we pinpoint what we believe are major questions for future research inspired by the hypothesis.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)932
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
Publication statusPublished - 2014
Externally publishedYes


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