Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

From Brown-Peterson to Continual Distractor Via Operation Span: A SIMPLE Account of Complex Span

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

From Brown-Peterson to Continual Distractor Via Operation Span: A SIMPLE Account of Complex Span

Article excerpt

Three memory tasks-Brown-Peterson, complex span, and continual distractor-all alternate presentation of a to-be-remembered item and a distractor activity, but each task is associated with a different memory system, short-term memory, working memory, and long-term memory, respectively. SIMPLE, a relative local distinctiveness model, has previously been fit to data from both the Brown-Peterson and continual distractor tasks; here we use the same version of the model to fit data from a complex span task. Despite the many differences between the tasks, including unpredictable list length, SIMPLE fit the data well. Because SIMPLE posits a single memory system, these results constitute yet another demonstration that performance on tasks originally thought to tap different memory systems can be explained without invoking multiple memory systems.

Keywords: complex span, memory systems, serial position functions, serial recall, SIMPLE

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One approach to the study of human memory invokes a unitary account in which there exist general principles that apply widely over different time scales, different tests, and different hypothetical underlying memory systems (Surprenant & Neath, 2009a). Evidence proffered in support of this approach includes demonstrations of similarities in paradigms that have otherwise been considered as tapping different memory systems. For example, the characteristic bow-shaped serial position function can be observed in tasks thought to tap many different episodic memory systems including sensory memory, short-term memory (STM), working memory, and long-term memory. Importantly, all of these instances can be explained by a unitary model of memory called SIMPLE (Scale Independent Memory, Perception, and Learning; Brown, Neath, & Chater, 2007; Neath & Brown, 2006). In addition, the same account explains the bow-shaped serial position function observed when the memory task taps semantic memory (Kelley, Neath, & Surprenant, 2013, in press; Neath, 2010; Neath & SaintAubin, 2011). In this article, we examine whether SIMPLE can also explain the bow-shaped serial position functions observed in complex span tasks.

Complex Span, Continual Distractor Tasks, and Brown-Peterson

Span tasks can be divided into two types, simple and complex. In a simple span task, such as digit span, the subject sees or hears a list of items and is then asked to recall those items in order immediately after presentation ends. Complex span tasks are similar except that subjects are asked to engage in a second activity between each of the to-be-remembered items. For example, in the operation span task (Turner & Engle, 1989), the subject reads a mathematical question out loud (e.g., "Is 10 divided by 2 plus 4 equal to 9?"), answers the question, and then sees the first item in the list. The math problems alternate with the to-be-remembered items. At the end of the list, which typically varies from two to six words, the subject is asked to recall the words in strict serial order. There are a number of complex span (also called working memory span) tasks including reading span (Daneman & Carpenter, 1980), in which subjects read sentences out loud and then recall the last word of each sentence; counting span (Case, Kurland, & Goldberg, 1982), in which subjects count the dots on a series of cards and are asked to recall the sums; and spatial span (Shah & Miyake, 1996), in which subjects are asked to recall the spatial orientation of letters while doing mental rotation. One important difference between simple and complex span tasks is that the latter correlate better with higher-order cognitive tasks such as reading comprehension, problem solving, and reasoning (see Conway et al., 2005).

Complex span tasks originated from Baddeley and Hitch's (1974) formulation of working memory. The key feature was that complex span "measures were, therefore, created to require not only information storage and rehearsal . …

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