Accessing Information in Working Memory: Can the Focus of Attention Grasp Two Elements at the Same Time?

Klaus Oberauer, Svetlana Bialkova

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Abstract


Processing information in working memory requires selective access to a subset of working-memory contents by a focus of attention. Complex cognition often requires joint access to two items in working memory. How does the focus select two items? Two experiments with an arithmetic task and one with a spatial task investigate time demands for successive operations that involve two digits or two spatial positions, respectively. When both items used in an operation have been used in the preceding operation, latencies are shortened. No such repetition benefit (arithmetic), or a much smaller benefit (spatial) was found when only one item was repeated. The results rule out serial access to the two items, parallel access by expanding the focus, and parallel access by splitting the focus. They support the notion that two items are accessed by chunking them, so that they fit a focus limited to one chunk.

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