A neural system for human visual working memory

Leslie G. Ungerleider, Susan M. Courtney, James V. Haxby

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

528 Scopus citations


Working memory is the process of actively maintaining a representation of information for a brief period of time so that it is available for use. In monkeys, visual working memory involves the concerted activity of a distributed neural system, including posterior areas in visual cortex and anterior areas in prefrontal cortex. Within visual cortex, ventral stream areas are selectively involved in object vision, whereas dorsal stream areas are selectively involved in spatial vision. This domain specificity appears to extend forward into prefrontal cortex, with ventrolateral areas involved mainly in working memory for objects and dorsolateral areas involved mainly in working memory for spatial locations. The organization of this distributed neural system for working memory in monkeys appears to be conserved in humans, though some differences between the two species exist. In humans, as compared with monkeys, areas specialized for object vision in the ventral stream have a more inferior location in temporal cortex, whereas areas specialized for spatial vision in the dorsal stream have a more superior location in parietal cortex. Displacement of both sets of visual areas away from the posterior perisylvian cortex may be related to the emergence of language over the course of brain evolution. Whereas areas specialized for object working memory in humans and monkeys are similarly located in ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, those specialized for spatial working memory occupy a more superior and posterior location within dorsal prefrontal cortex in humans than in monkeys. As in posterior cortex, this displacement in frontal cortex also may be related to the emergence of new areas to serve distinctively human cognitive abilities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)883-890
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number3
StatePublished - Feb 3 1998
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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