Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Deployment of Attention in Short-Term Memory Tasks: Trade-Offs between Immediate and Delayed Deployment

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Deployment of Attention in Short-Term Memory Tasks: Trade-Offs between Immediate and Delayed Deployment

Article excerpt

Memory at times depends on attention, as when attention is used to encode incoming, serial verbal information. When encoding and rehearsal are difficult or when attention is divided during list presentation, more attention is needed in the time following the presentation and just preceding the response. Across 12 experimental conditions observed in several experiments, we demonstrated this by introducing a nonverbal task with three levels of effort (no task, a natural nonverbal task, or an unnatural version of the task) during a brief retention interval in a short-term digit recall task. Interference from the task during the retention interval was greater when resources were drawn away from the encoding of the stimuli by other factors, including unpredictability of the end point of the list, rapid presentation, and a secondary task during list presentation. When those conditions complicate encoding of the list, we argue, attention is needed after the list so that the contents of passive memory (i.e., postcategorical phonological storage and/or precategorical sensory memory) may be retrieved and become the focus of attention for recall.

Although attention is a critical concept in cognitive psychology, it has always been a complex one, with different connotations for different researchers. We take it to mean a central, limited-capacity resource that can be voluntarily applied to both processing, or manipulation, of stored information and temporary memory storage itself (see Baddeley & Hitch, 1974; Cowan, 2005a, 2005b; Engle, Kane, & Tuholski, 1999; Kane et al., 2004). The central aspect indicates that the resource is shared between all modalities (vision, hearing, etc.) and types of coding (phonological, orthographic, spatial, etc.). The limited-capacity aspect indicates that one type of storage or processing can be increased only at the expense of other types. The allocation of attention can be modified voluntarily, as is indicated when participants modify their allocation according to variable instructions or payoffs. (This does not imply that attention is completely voluntary; for example, a thunderclap can recruit attention away from an assigned task momentarily.)

The most difficult aspect of attention is that not all processes fall in its domain; some types of process-notably, very well learned ones-are impervious to the allocation of attention (Shiffrin, 1988). Also, task trade-offs that are not central in nature are not considered to demonstrate attention. For instance, if performance in a listening task trades off with that in a reading task but not with that in a maze navigation task, whereas performance in a picturematching task trades off with maze navigation but not with reading, the trade-offs are said to result from linguistic and spatial processing interference, respectively, and not from limited attention.

Our thesis is that there is a domain-general, limited attentional resource for which storage and processing compete. Perhaps to simplify the theoretical role of attention, several theorists have proposed that attention is used for processing and, perhaps, for some memory-maintenance activities, but not for memory storage itself, which is considered passive or automatic once the information has been suitably encoded (Baddeley, 1986,2007; Baddeley & Logie, 1999). However, this simplification makes it difficult to explain some tradeoffs, such as some of those demonstrated by Baddeley and Hitch (1974), and is in need of further study. If it can be shown that attention is needed to convert information to a form in which it can be recalled, that will be a first step in demonstrating that attention is used for storage.

At least two theoretical analyses of working memory suggest that attention should be needed for storage. First, according to suggestions of Cowan (1988, 1995, 2001), a limited amount of information can be held in the focus of attention (on average, three to five meaningful chunks), and deliberate responses require that the information be transferred there, rather than remaining in the activated portion of long-term memory outside of attention. …

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