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

Klaus Oberauer, Svetlana Bialkova

Full Text: PDF   Paper Package: OberauerBialkova2014_1.0 tar.gz PID: 11022/0000-0000-1F65-D


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.


Allport, A. (1987). Selection for action: Some behavioral and neurophysiological considerations of attention and action. In H. Heuer & A. F. Sanders (Eds.), Perspectives on perception and action (pp. 395-419). Hillsdale: Erlbaum.

Audacity-Developer-Team. (2007). Audacity package (Version 1.3 beta).

Baayen, R. H., Davidson, D. J., & Bates, D. M. (in press). Mixed-effects modeling with crossed random effects for subjects and items. Journal of Memory and Language.

Baddeley, A. D. (1986). Working memory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Bakeman, R., & McArthur, D. (1996). Picturing repeated measures: Comments on Loftus, Morrison, and others. Behavioral Research Methods, Instruments, & Computers, 28, 584-589.

Bayes Factor. (2008). Retrieved March 2, 2008, from

Bowers, J. S. (2002). Challenging the widespread assumption that connectionism and distributed representations go hand-in-hand. Cognitive Psychology, 45, 413-445.

Cohen, J. (1995). The earth is round (p < .05). American Psychologist, 49, 997-1003.

Conway, A. R. A., Kane, M. J., & Engle, R. W. (2003). Working memory capacity and its relation to general intelligence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7, 547-552.

Cowan, N. (1988). Evolving conceptions of memory storage, selective attention, and their mutual constraints within the human information-processing system. Psychological Bulletin, 104, 163-191.

Cowan, N. (1995). Attention and memory: An integrated framework. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cowan, N. (2005). Working memory capacity. New York: Psychology Press.

Cowan, N., Elliott, E. M., Saults, J. S., Morey, C. C., Mattox, S., Hismjatullina, A., et al. (2005). On the capacity of attention: its estimation and its role in working memory and cognitive aptitudes. Cognitive Psychology, 51, 42-100.

Cumming, G., & Finch, S. (2005). Inference by eye: confidence intervals and how o read pictures of data. American Psychologist, 60, 170-180.

Daneman, M., & Carpenter, P. A. (1980). Individual differences in working memory and reading. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 19, 450-466.

Engle, R. W., Kane, M. J., & Tuholski, S. W. (1999). Individual differences in working memory capacity and what they tell us about controlled attention, general fluid intelligence, and functions of the prefrontal cortex. In A. Miyake & P. Shah (Eds.), Models of working memory. Mechanisms of active maintenance and executive control (pp. 102-134). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Garavan, H. (1998). Serial attention within working memory. Memory & Cognition, 26, 263-276.

Gentner, D. (1989). The mechanisms of analogical learning. In S. Vosniadou & A. Ortony (Eds.), Similarity and analogical reasoning (pp. 199-241). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gentner, D., & Stevens, A. L. (1983). Mental Models. Hillsdale: Erlbaum.

Gernsbacher, M. A. (1991). Cognitive processes and mechanisms in language comprehension: The structure building framework. In G. Bower (Ed.), The Psychology of Learning and Motivation (Vol. 27, pp. 217-263). New York: Academic Press.

Gigerenzer, G. (2004). Mindless statistics. Journal of Socio-Economics, 33, 587–606.

Gigerenzer, G., Krauss, S., & Vitouch, O. (2004). The null ritual. What you always wanted to know about significance testing but were afraid to ask. In D. Kaplan (Ed.), The Sage handbook of quantitative methodology for the social sciences (pp. 391-408). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Glover, S., & Dixon, P. (2004). Likelihood ratios: A simple and flexible statistic for empirical psychologists. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 11, 791-806.

Goodwin, G. P., & Johnson-Laird, P. N. (2005). Reasoning about relations. Psychological Review, 112, 468-493.

Göthe, K., Oberauer, K., & Kliegl, R. (2007). Age differences in dual-task performance after practice. Psychology and Aging, 22, 596-606.

Halford, G. S., Wilson, W. H., & Phillips, S. (1998). Processing capacity defined by relational complexity: Implications for comparative, developmental, and cognitive psychology. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 21, 803-864.

Hayes-Roth, B., & Hayes-Roth, F. (1979). A cognitive model of planning. Cognitive Science, 3, 275-318.

Hoffman, L., & Rovine, M. J. (2007). Multilevel models for the experimental psychologist: Foundations and illustrative examples. Behavior Research Methods, 39, 101-117.

Hörnig, R., Oberauer, K., & Weidenfeld, A. (2005). Two principles of premise integration in spatial reasoning. Memory & Cognition, 33, 131-139.

Hörnig, R., Oberauer, K., & Weidenfeld, A. (2006). Between reasoning. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 59, 1805-1825.

Howson, C., & Urbach, P. (1993). Scientific reasoning: The Bayesian method (2 ed.). Chicago: Open Court.

Huttenlocher, J. (1968). Constructing spatial images: A strategy in reasoning. Psychological Review, 75, 550-560.

Johnson-Laird, P. N. (1983). Mental models. Cambridge: University Press.

Jonides, J., Lewis, R. L., Nee, D. E., Lustig, C. A., Berman, M. G., & Moore, K. S. (2008). The mind and brain of short-term memory. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 193-224.

Kane, M. J., & Engle, R. W. (2002). The role of prefrontal cortex in working-memory capacity, executive attention, and general fluid intelligence: An individual-differences perspective. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 9, 637-671.

Kintsch, W., & van Dijk, T. A. (1978). Toward a model of text comprehension and production. Psychological Review, 85, 363-394.

Kliegl, R. (2007). Toward a perceptual-span theory of distributed processing in reading: A reply to Rayner, Pollatsek, Drieghe, Slattery, and Reichle (2007). Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 136, 530-537.

Koch, I., Prinz, W., & Allport, A. (2005). Involuntary retrieval in alphabet-arithmetic tasks: Task-mixing and task-switching costs. Psychological Research, 69, 252-261.

Lepsien, J., & Nobre, A. (2006). Cognitive control of attention in the human brain: Insights from orienting attention to mental representations. Brain Research, 1105, 20-31.

Lewandowsky, S., & Farrell, S. (in press). Short-term memory: new data and a model. The Psychology of Learning and Motivation.

Li, Z., Bao, M., Chen, X., Zhang, D. R., Han, S., He, S., et al. (2006). Attention shift in human verbal working memory: Priming contribution and dynamic brain activation. Brain Research, 1078, 132-142.

Logan, G. D., & Gordon, R. D. (2001). Executive control of visual attention in dual-task situations. Psychological Review, 108, 393-434.

Mani, K., & Johnson-Laird, P. N. (1982). The mental representation of spatial descriptions. Memory & Cognition, 10, 181-187.

Mayr, U., & Kliegl, R. (2003). Differential effects of cue changes and task changes on task-set selection costs. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 29, 362-372.

McElree, B. (1998). Attended and non-attended states in working memory: accessing categorized structures. Journal of Memory and Language, 38, 225-252.

McElree, B. (2001). Working memory and the focus of attention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 27, 817-835.

McElree, B. (2006). Accessing recent events. In B. H. Ross (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 46, pp. 155-200). San Diego: Academic Press.

McElree, B., & Dosher, B. A. (1989). Serial position and set size in short-term memory: The time course of recognition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 118, 346-373.

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.

Myung, I. J. (2003). Tutorial on maximum likelihood estimation. Journal of Mathematical Psychology, 47, 90-100.

Oberauer, K. (2002). Access to information in working memory: Exploring the focus of attention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 28, 411-421.

Oberauer, K. (2003). Selective attention to elements in working memory. Experimental Psychology, 50, 257-269.

Oberauer, K. (2006). Is the focus of attention in working memory expanded through practice? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory & Cognition, 32, 197-214.

Oberauer, K. (2007). Activation, binding, and selective access. An embedded three-component framework for working memory. In N. Osaka, R. Logie & M. D'Esposito (Eds.), The cognitive neuroscience of working memory (pp. 351-368). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Oberauer, K., Hörnig, R., Weidenfeld, A., & Wilhelm, O. (2005). Effects of directionality in deductive reasoning, II: Premise integration and conclusion evaluation. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 58A, 1225-1247.

Oberauer, K., & Kliegl, R. (2004). Simultaneous execution of two cognitive operations - Evidence from a continuous updating paradigm. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 30, 689-707.

Oberauer, K., & Kliegl, R. (2006). A formal model of capacity limits in working memory. Journal of Memory and Language, 55, 601-626.

Oberauer, K., Süß, H.-M., Wilhelm, O., & Sander, N. (2007). Individual differences in working memory capacity and reasoning ability. In A. R. A. Conway, C. Jarrold, M. J. Kane, A. Miyake & J. N. Towse (Eds.), Variation in working memory (pp. 49-75). New York: Oxford University Press.

Oberauer, K., Weidenfeld, A., & Hörnig, R. (2006). Working memory capacity and the construction of spatial mental models in comprehension and deductive reasoning. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 59, 426-447.

Pashler, H. (1994). Dual-task interference in simple tasks: Data and theory. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 220-244.

Pashler, H., Johnston, J. C., & Ruthruff, E. (2000). Attention and performance. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 629-651.

Pinheiro, J. C., & Bates, D. M. (2000). Mixed-Effect Models in S and S-Plus. Berlin: Springer.

Pinheiro, J. C., Bates, D. M., DebRoy, S., & Sarkar, D. (2005). nlme: Linear and nonlinear mixed effects models. R package (Version 3.1-73).

Plate, T. A. (2003). Convolution-based memory models. In L. Nadel (Ed.), Encyclopedia of cognitive science (pp. 824-828). London: Nature Publishing Group.

Quené, H., & van den Bergh, H. (in press). Examples of mixed-effects modeling with crossed random effects and with binomial data. Journal of Memory and Language.

R-Development-Core-Team. (2005). R: A language and environment for statistical computing. Vienna: R Foundation for Statistical Computing. ISBN: 3-900051-07-0, URL:

Sternberg, S. (1969). Memory scanning: Mental processes revealed by reaction-time experiments. American Scientist, 57, 421-457.

Turner, M. L., & Engle, R. W. (1989). Is working memory capacity task dependent? Journal of Memory and Language, 28, 127-154.

Verhaeghen, P., & Basak, C. (2005). Ageing and switching of the focus of attention in working memory: Results from a modified N-back task. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Wagenmakers, E.-J. (2007). A practical solution to the pervasive problems of p values. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14, 779-804.

Waszak, F., Hommel, B., & Allport, A. (2003). Task-switching and long-term priming: Role of episodic stimulus-task bindings in task-shift costs. Cognitive Psychology, 46, 361-413.

Zwaan, R. A., Magliano, J. P., & Graesser, A. C. (1995). Dimensions of situation model construction in narrative comprehension. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 21, 386-397.