Attention and Memory: An Integrated Framework

Attention and Memory: An Integrated Framework

Attention and Memory: An Integrated Framework

Attention and Memory: An Integrated Framework


For decades, the fundamental processes underlying memory and attention have been understood within an "information processing" framework in which information passes from one processing stage to another, leading eventually to a response. More recently, however, the attempt to build a general theoretical framework for information processing has been largely supplanted in favor of two more recent approaches: parallel/connectionist models of processing and direct investigations of brain function. In Attention and Memory, cognitive psychologist Nelson Cowan reconciles theoretical conflicts in the literature to presents an important, analytical update of the traditional information-processing approach by modifying it to incorporate the last few decades of research on memory, attention, and brain functioning. Throughout, the author cogently considers and ultimately refutes recent challenges to the fundamental assumption of the existence of special short-term memory and selective attention faculties. He also draws a new distinction between memory processes operating inside and outside of the focus of attention. Coherent and balanced, the book offers a clearer understanding of how memory and attention operate together, and how both functions are produced by brain processes. It will be welcomed by students and researchers in cognitive psychology.


... writing is nothing more than a guided dream.

Jorg Luis Borges in the preface of Dr. Brodie's Report (1972: New York, E. P. Dutton)

The notion of writing a book was suggested to me by Donald Broadbent when he read my review article appearing in the Psychological Bulletin (Cowan, 1988) and sent two long letters full of helpful comments, ideas, and references. The purpose of my article had been to develop a model of the information processing system that captures what is fundamental about memory and attention and omits what we do not know. Developing such a model was, I felt, the best way to stay focused on learning how the components of the processing system affect one another, and on finding out what kinds of research would address the most general areas of ignorance. This also appears to have been the spirit of some previous models (e.g., Broadbent, 1958, 1984; Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968), but they appeared to be in need of revision and modification.

Many other cognitive researchers have taken a different strategy. They have tried to model only a particular aspect of the processing system in great detail or have incorporated various untested assumptions into their models in order to derive more precise predictions from those models.

Although many of those efforts have indeed been fruitful, in my own work I have preferred the more general approach in which the emphasis is placed on resolving the most basic unsettled issues first, so as hopefully to minimize wrong turns.

The process that led me to the 1988 formulation in many ways turned out to be an interesting recapitulation of the processes that Broadbent (1958) followed in arriving at his seminal model. Again it was the interrelation between temporary memory and selective attention that was salient. Broadbent emphasized that subjects could recall only the last few seconds of an unattended channel in selective listening. Similarly, in the process of examining memory for unattended spoken syllables (Cowan, Lichty, & Grove, 1990), I began to rethink the role of selective filtering. I noticed that subjects required an irregularly timed set of syllables, with not too many seconds between syllables in order to allow them to habituate to the syllables and focus on a primary task, silent reading. During this work I realized that the habituation of orienting was an automatic mechanism that could play an essential part in the selective filtering of stimuli; and there was already research supporting that approach (e.g., Waters, McDonald, & Koresko, 1977).

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