The Lifespan Working Memory Research Group
Psychology Department, University of Sheffield
ABOUT THE PI
Dr. Alicia Forsberg
I am a Lecturer in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Sheffield. I am interested in working memory and the development of memory and attention across the human lifespan, including both child development and cognitive ageing. Recently, I have been exploring the relationship between working and long-term memory and the development of object and feature memory. My research also examines lifespan differences in meta-cognition and how people approach cognitive tasks. I am very interested in open and reproducible science, Bayesian statistics, and research methodology.
We explored how individual and age-related differences in working memory (WM) capacity affected subsequent long-term memory (LTM) retrieval. Unlike past studies, we tested WM and LTM not only for items, but also for item–color bindings. Our sample included 82 elementary school children and 42 young adults. The participants performed a WM task with images of unique everyday items presented sequentially at varying set sizes in different colors. Later, we tested LTM for items and item–color bindings from the WM task. The WM load during encoding constrained LTM, and participants with a higher WM capacity retrieved more items in the LTM test. Even when accounting for young children’s poor item memory by considering only the items that they did remember, they exhibited an exacerbated difficulty with remembering item–color bindings in WM. Their LTM binding performance, however, as a proportion of remembered objects, was comparable to that of older children and adults. The WM binding performance was better during sub-span encoding loads, but with no clear transfer of this benefit to LTM. Overall, LTM item memory performance was constrained by individual and age-related WM limitations, but with mixed consequences for binding. We discuss the theoretical, practical, and developmental implications of this WM-to-LTM bottleneck.
Forsberg, A., Guitard, D., Adams, E. J., Pattanakul, D., & Cowan, N. (2023). Working memory constrains long-term memory in children and adults: memory of objects and bindings. Journal of Intelligence, 11(5), 94.
We investigated how visual working memory (WM) develops with age across the early elementary school period (6–7 years), early adolescence (11–13 years), and early adulthood (18–25 years). The work focuses on changes in two parameters: the number of objects retained at least in part, and the amount of feature-detail remembered for such objects. Some evidence suggests that, while infants can remember up to three objects, much like adults, young children only remember around two objects. This curious, nonmonotonic trajectory might be explained by differences in the level of feature-detail required for successful performance in infant versus child/adult memory paradigms. Here, we examined if changes in one of two parameters (the number of objects, and the amount of detail retained for each object) or both of them together can explain the development of visual WM ability as children grow older. To test it, we varied the amount of feature-detail participants need to retain. In the baseline condition, participants saw an array of objects and simply were to indicate whether an object was present in a probed location or not. This phase begun with a titration procedure to adjust each individual's array size to yield about 80% correct. In other conditions, we tested memory of not only location but also additional features of the objects (color, and sometimes also orientation). Our results suggest that capacity growth across ages is expressed by both improved location-memory (whether there was an object in a location) and feature completeness of object representations.
Forsberg, A., Adams, E. J., & Cowan, N. (2023). Why does visual working memory ability improve with age: More objects, more feature detail, or both? A registered report. Developmental Science, 26(2), e13283.
We explored whether long-term memory (LTM) retrieval is constrained by working memory (WM) limitations, in 80 younger and 80 older adults. Participants performed a WM task with images of unique everyday items, presented at varying set sizes. Subsequently, we tested participants’ LTM for items from the WM task and examined the ratio of LTM/WM retention. While older adults’ WM and LTM were generally poorer than that of younger adults, their LTM deficit was no greater than what was predicted from their WM performance. The ability to encode WM information into LTM appeared immune to age-related cognitive decline.
Forsberg, A., Guitard, D., Greene, N. R., Naveh-Benjamin, M., & Cowan, N. (2022). The proportion of working memory items recoverable from long-term memory remains fixed despite adult aging. Psychology and Aging.
There has been considerable controversy in recent years as to whether information held in working memory (WM) is rapidly forgotten or automatically transferred to long-term memory (LTM). Although visual WM capacity is very limited, we appear able to store a virtually infinite amount of information in visual LTM. Still, LTM retrieval often fails. Some view visual WM as a mental sketchpad that is wiped clean when new information enters, but not a consistent precursor of LTM. Others view the WM and LTM systems as inherently linked. Distinguishing between these possibilities has been difficult, as attempts to directly manipulate the active holding of information in visual WM has typically introduced various confounds. Here, we capitalized on the WM system’s capacity limitation to control the likelihood that visual information was actively held in WM. Our young-adult participants (N = 103) performed a WM task with unique everyday items, presented in groups of two, four, six, or eight items. Presentation time was adjusted according to the number of items. Subsequently, we tested participants’ LTM for items from the WM task. LTM was better for items presented originally within smaller WM set sizes, indicating that WM limitations contribute to subsequent LTM failures, and that holding items in WM enhances LTM encoding. Our results suggest that a limit in WM capacity contributes to an LTM encoding bottleneck for trial-unique familiar objects, with a relatively large effect size.
Forsberg, A., Guitard, D., & Cowan, N. (2021). Working memory limits severely constrain long-term retention. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 28(2), 537-547.
We explored the causal role of individual and age-related differences in working memory (WM) capacity in long-term memory (LTM) retrieval. Our sample of 160 participants included 120 children (6 – 13-years old) and 40 young adults (18 – 24 years). Participants performed a WM task with images of unique everyday items, presented at varying set sizes. Subsequently, we tested participants' LTM for items from the WM task. Using these measures, we estimated the ratio at which items successfully held in WM were recognized in LTM. While WM and LTM generally improved with age, the ability to transfer information from WM to LTM appeared consistent between age groups. Moreover, individual differences in WM capacity appeared to predict LTM encoding. Overall, these results suggested that LTM performance was constrained by experimental, individual, and age-related WM limitations. We discuss the theoretical and practical implications of this WM-to-LTM bottleneck.
Forsberg, A., Guitard, D., Adams, E. J., Pattanakul, D., & Cowan, N. (2021). Children's long-term retention is directly constrained by their working memory capacity limitations. Developmental Science.
Growth in working memory capacity, the number of items kept active in mind, is thought to be an important aspect of childhood cognitive development. Here, we focused on participants’ awareness of the contents of their working memory, or meta-working memory, which seems important because people can put cognitive abilities to best use only if they are aware of their limitations. In two experiments on the development of meta-working memory in children between 6 and 13 years old and adults, participants were to remember arrays of colored squares and to indicate if a probe item was in the array. On many trials, before the probe recognition test, they reported a metajudgment, how many items they thought they remembered. We compared meta-working memory judgments to actual performance and looked for associations between these measures on individual and trial-by-trial levels. Despite much lower working memory capacity in younger children there was little change in meta-working memory judgments across age groups. Consequently, younger participants were much less realistic in their metajudgments concerning their working memory capability. Higher cognitive capacity was associated with more accurate meta-working memory judgments within an age group. Trial-by-trial tuning of metajudgments was evident only in young adults and then only for small array set sizes. In sum, meta-working memory ability is a sophisticated skill that develops with age and may be an integral aspect of the development of working memory across the school years.
Forsberg, A., Blume, C. L., & Cowan, N. (2021). The development of metacognitive accuracy in working memory across childhood. Developmental Psychology.
Current Ph.D. Researchers
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