Mental compression of spatial sequences in human working memory using numerical and geometrical primitives.


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How does the human brain store sequences of spatial locations? We propose that each sequence is internally compressed using an abstract, language-like code that captures its numerical and geometrical regularities. We exposed participants to spatial sequences of fixed length but variable regularity while their brain activity was recorded using magneto-encephalography. Using multivariate decoders, each successive location could be decoded from brain signals, and upcoming locations were anticipated prior to their actual onset. Crucially, sequences with lower complexity, defined as the minimal description length provided by the formal language, led to lower error rates and to increased anticipations. Furthermore, neural codes specific to the numerical and geometrical primitives of the postulated language could be detected, both in isolation and within the sequences. These results suggest that the human brain detects sequence regularities at multiple nested levels and uses them to compress long sequences in working memory.
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