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How verbal memory loads consume attention


According to a traditional assumption about working memory, participants retain a series of verbal items for immediate recall using covert verbal rehearsal, without much need for attention. We reassessed this assumption by imposing a speeded, nonverbal choice reaction time (CRT) task following the presentation of each digit in a list to be recalled. When the memory load surpassed a few items, performance on the speeded CRT task became increasingly impaired. This CRT task impairment depended only on attention-related components of working memory; it was not alleviated by the presence of an auditory memory trace that automatically helped the recall of items at the ends of spoken lists. We suggest that attention-demanding refreshing of verbal stimuli occurs along with any covert rehearsal.


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Correspondence to Zhjian Chen.

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Chen, Z., Cowan, N. How verbal memory loads consume attention. Memory & Cognition 37, 829–836 (2009). https://doi.org/10.3758/MC.37.6.829

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  • Serial Position
  • Memory Load
  • Secondary Task
  • Choice Reaction Time
  • List Length