What Limits Working Memory Capacity? Evidence for Modality-Specific Sources to the Simultaneous Storage of Visual and Auditory Arrays

Daryl Fougnie, René Marois

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

There is considerable debate on whether working memory (WM) storage is mediated by distinct subsystems for auditory and visual stimuli (Baddeley, 1986) or whether it is constrained by a single, central capacity-limited system (Cowan, 2006). Recent studies have addressed this issue by measuring the dual-task cost during the concurrent storage of auditory and visual arrays (e.g., Cocchini, Logie, Della Sala, MacPherson, & Baddeley, 2002; Fougnie & Marois, 2006; Saults & Cowan, 2007). However, studies have yielded widely different dual-task costs, which have been taken to support both modality-specific and central capacity-limit accounts of WM storage. Here, we demonstrate that the controversies regarding such costs mostly stem from how these costs are measured. Measures that compare combined dual-task capacity with the higher single-task capacity support a single, central WM store when there is a large disparity between the single-task capacities (Experiment 1) but not when the single-task capacities are well equated (Experiment 2). In contrast, measures of the dual-task cost that normalize for differences in single-task capacity reveal evidence for modality-specific stores, regardless of single-task performance. Moreover, these normalized measures indicate that dual-task cost is much smaller if the tasks do not involve maintaining bound feature representations in WM (Experiment 3). Taken together, these experiments not only resolve a discrepancy in the field and clarify how to assess the dual-task cost but also indicate that WM capacity can be constrained both by modality-specific and modality-independent sources of information processing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1329-1341
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition
Volume37
Issue number6
DOIs
StatePublished - Nov 1 2011

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Short-Term Memory
Costs and Cost Analysis
costs
evidence
experiment
Task Performance and Analysis
Modality
Costs
Working Memory Capacity
Hearing
Automatic Data Processing
subsystem
Dual Task
information processing
source of information
stimulus
Experiment
Working Memory
performance

Keywords

  • Capacity limits
  • Dual task
  • Working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language

Cite this

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title = "What Limits Working Memory Capacity? Evidence for Modality-Specific Sources to the Simultaneous Storage of Visual and Auditory Arrays",
abstract = "There is considerable debate on whether working memory (WM) storage is mediated by distinct subsystems for auditory and visual stimuli (Baddeley, 1986) or whether it is constrained by a single, central capacity-limited system (Cowan, 2006). Recent studies have addressed this issue by measuring the dual-task cost during the concurrent storage of auditory and visual arrays (e.g., Cocchini, Logie, Della Sala, MacPherson, & Baddeley, 2002; Fougnie & Marois, 2006; Saults & Cowan, 2007). However, studies have yielded widely different dual-task costs, which have been taken to support both modality-specific and central capacity-limit accounts of WM storage. Here, we demonstrate that the controversies regarding such costs mostly stem from how these costs are measured. Measures that compare combined dual-task capacity with the higher single-task capacity support a single, central WM store when there is a large disparity between the single-task capacities (Experiment 1) but not when the single-task capacities are well equated (Experiment 2). In contrast, measures of the dual-task cost that normalize for differences in single-task capacity reveal evidence for modality-specific stores, regardless of single-task performance. Moreover, these normalized measures indicate that dual-task cost is much smaller if the tasks do not involve maintaining bound feature representations in WM (Experiment 3). Taken together, these experiments not only resolve a discrepancy in the field and clarify how to assess the dual-task cost but also indicate that WM capacity can be constrained both by modality-specific and modality-independent sources of information processing.",
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