Remembering nothing: Encoding and memory processes involved in representing empty locations

Viktoria Csink, Teodora Gliga, Denis Mareschal

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Previous research has provided rich evidence that a set of visual objects can be encoded in isolation along with their exact coordinate positions as well as a global configuration that provides a network of interrelated spatial information. However, much less data is available on how unoccupied locations are encoded and maintained in memory. We tested this ability in adults using a novel paradigm that involved both empty and filled locations and required participants to monitor the addition or deletion of an item, which occurred 50% of the time. Crucially, a number of locations remained hidden to the participant—thus, information on the absence of an item at a location could not be inferred from the presence of items elsewhere. We used eye-tracking to measure the proportion of target looking during encoding and the amount of pupil dilation during memory retention. Participants looked significantly longer at filled compared with empty targets, and target looking during encoding only predicted accuracy in case of filled targets. Increased pupil dilation was observed in response to an increasing number of items, while pupil diameter was unaffected by the number of empty locations. In addition, participants made significantly more errors in the conditions that involved the representation of an empty location. Our findings support the view that human adults encode exact coordinates of items in memory. In contrast, we suggest that empty locations are represented as a property of the global configuration of items and empty space, and not as independent units of information.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)129–143
Number of pages15
JournalMemory & Cognition
Early online date19 Jul 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2022


  • Change detection
  • Configural processing
  • Empty locations
  • Pupillometry
  • Visual-spatial short-term memory

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