Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Short- and Long-Term Fates of Memory Items Retained outside the Focus of Attention

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Short- and Long-Term Fates of Memory Items Retained outside the Focus of Attention

Article excerpt

Published online: 4 December 2014

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract When a test of working memory (WM) requires the retention of multiple items, a subset of them can be prioritized. Recent studies have shown that, although prioritized (i.e., attended) items are associated with active neural representations, unprioritized (i.e., unattended) memory items can be retained in WM despite the absence of such active representations, and with no decrement in their recognition if they are cued later in the trial. These findings raise two intriguing questions about the nature of the short-term retention of information outside the focus of attention. First, when the focus of attention shifts from items in WM, is there a loss of fidelity for those unattended memory items? Second, could the retention of unattended memory items be accomplished by long-term memory mechanisms? We addressed the first question by comparing the precision of recall of attended versus unattended memory items, and found a significant decrease in precision for unattended memory items, reflecting a degradation in the quality of those representations. We addressed the second question by asking subjects to perform a WM task, followed by a surprise memory test for the items that they had seen in the WM task. Long-term memory for unattended memory items from the WM task was not better than memory for items that had remained selected by the focus of attention in the WM task. These results show that unattended WM representations are degraded in quality and are not preferentially represented in long-term memory, as compared to attended memory items.

Keywords Working memory . Attention . Short-term memory . Long-term memory

Upon meeting a new group of people at a cocktail party, it is common to have difficulty remembering each person'sname as introductions continue and conversation ensues. As different people speak in turn, brief shifts of attention can cause the name of the current speaker to become more immediately relevant, whereas the recently acquired names of unattended persons may fade. "Short-term memory" (STM) refers to the transient retention of such information when it is no longer present in the environment (e.g., when there are no name tags); the related construct of "working memory" (WM) additionally invokes the active manipulation of such information (e.g., mentally updating the list of learned names if a person leaves the conversing group). Several influential "state-based" models of STM have suggested that the ability to transiently retain information can be understood as the selection, by attention, of representations from long-term memory (LTM) or perception (Cowan, 1988; McElree, 1998; Oberauer, 2002). A crucial aspect of these state-based models is that these representations need not be continuously held in the focus of attention. Even after attention shifts to select new information, recently attended information may be transiently retained as "activated long-term memory." Note that these state-based models differ from memory-systems models, such as the multiple-component model (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974), in that they require neither representations nor processes that differ from those recruited for the perception and recognition of stimuli or for the retrieval of information from LTM (reviewed in Larocque, Lewis-Peacock, & Postle, 2014).

The notion that attention can be allocated to internal representations such as those in WM has been supported by numerous empirical studies. For example, Oberauer has explored the allocation of attention to WM items using a WM task with retrocues that signal the relevance of a subset of memory items. He has shown that the Sternberg effect, which is the scaling of reaction times in a WM task with the number of items concurrently remembered, only exists for remembered items that are prioritized by retrocues (Oberauer, 2001, 2002, 2005); remembering additional, nonretrocued items does not affect reaction time. …

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