Working memory (WM) extends the duration over which information is available for processing. Given its importance in supporting a wide-array of high level cognitive abilities, uncovering the neural mechanisms that underlie WM has been a primary goal of neuroscience research over the past century. Here, we critically review what we consider the two major arcs of inquiry, with a specific focus on findings that were theoretically transformative. For the first arc, we briefly review classic studies that led to the canonical WM theory that cast the prefrontal cortex (PFC) as a central player utilizing persistent activity of neurons as a mechanism for memory storage. We then consider recent challenges to the theory regarding the role of persistent neural activity. The second arc, which evolved over the last decade, stemmed from sophisticated computational neuroimaging approaches enabling researchers to decode the contents of WM from the patterns of neural activity in many parts of the brain including early visual cortex. We summarize key findings from these studies, their implications for WM theory, and finally the challenges these findings pose. A comprehensive theory of WM will require a unification of these two arcs of research.
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