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Working memory and flexibility in awareness and attention

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We argue that attention and awareness form the basis of one type of working-memory storage. In contrast to models of working memory in which storage and retrieval occur effortlessly, we document that an attention-demanding goal conflict within a retrieval cue impairs recall from working memory. In a conceptual span task, semantic and color-name cues prompted recall of four consecutive words from a twelve-word list. The first-four, middle-four, and final-four words belonged to different semantic categories (e.g., body parts, animals, and tools) and were shown in different colors (e.g., red, blue, and green). In Experiment 1, the color of the cue matched that of cued items 75% of the time, and the rare mismatch impaired recall. In Experiment 2, though, the color of the cue matched that of the cued items only 25% of the time, and the now-more-frequent mismatches no longer mattered. These results are difficult to explain with passive storage alone and indicate that a processing difficulty impedes recall from working memory, presumably by distracting attention away from its storage function.

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This work was supported by Grant R01 HD-21338 awarded to Nelson Cowan from the National Institutes of Health. Michael Bunting was supported by a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Missouri from the Missouri Rehabilitation Research Training Program (Kristofer Hagglund, P.I.), the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the National Institutes of Health (Grant 2 T32 HD07460-09).

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Correspondence to Nelson Cowan.

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Bunting, M.F., Cowan, N. Working memory and flexibility in awareness and attention. Psychological Research 69, 412–419 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-004-0204-7

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  • Work Memory Capacity
  • Semantic Category
  • Span Task
  • Task Goal
  • Neutral Trial