Summary: Researchers report working memory is often limited by interference from items we have seen earlier, leading to the appearance it having limited capacity.
Source: City University of London.
Study offers mathematical proof of this ‘interference’ effect.
Our short-term memory is severely limited in everyday experience, but according to a new study from City, University of London and the Hungarian Academy of Science, it has no intrinsic limits when it comes to remembering information.
Instead, it is often limited by interference from similar items which we have seen earlier, which leads to the appearance of a low fixed and limited capacity.
Offering mathematical proof of this ‘interference’ effect, the researchers found that short-term memory capacity generally appears limited as soon as there are interfering items encountered earlier.
In their mathematical model, each item has some probability to be remembered if there are no interfering items in memory. This probability is reduced by interference from the items already in memory, and the more items we already have in memory, the stronger this interference becomes. The researcher show that this interplay between an open-ended short-term memory and the presence of interfering items can lead to the appearance of a low fixed and limited capacity. The research is published in Psychological Review.
These mathematical results support earlier research from academics at City, University of London and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, showing that participants have essentially no memory capacity limitations – unless there are interfering items in memory. In these experiments, participants were shown rapid sequences of everyday images.
Participants remembered roughly the same proportion of pictures in each sequence, independently of how many pictures had been presented, even when they were shown dozens of pictures. In other words, there were essentially no memory capacity limits.
Crucially, these results were observed only when each sequence used completely new images. By definition, new images are not (yet) in memory, and thus cannot interfere either. In a sharp contrast, when the sequences were constructed from changing combinations of a small set of images, people remembered less than 5 pictures from each sequence, similar to the usual capacity quoted for our short-term memory.
This suggests that one of the main determinants of the memory limitations we sometimes feel is interference from other items, while memory in itself might have an unbounded capacity. For example, quickly remembering a phone number might not be difficult because our short-term memory capacity is so limited, but rather because we have remembered many other number sequences in the past, and these earlier sequences intrude into the recall of the sequence we are currently trying to memorise.
Speaking about the study, Dr Ansgar Endress, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at City, University of London, said:
“In some sense, our short-term memory system has an undeservedly bad reputation: it can remember many more items than we give it credit for. However, when remembering items that we have seen earlier in changing combinations – such as numbers or items from a shopping list – the memory problem becomes much more tricky, and we suffer from relatively stringent memory limitations, because these earlier memories interfere with what we are trying to remember right now.”
About this neuroscience research article
Source: George Wigmore – City University of London Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is adapted from the City University of London news release. Original Research:Abstract for “Interference and Memory Capacity Limitations” by Endress, Ansgar D. and Szabó, Szilárd in Psychological Review. Published online April 17 2017 doi:10.1037/rev0000071
Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article
[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]City University of London “Limited Short Term Memory Caused by Interference From Similar Items Seen Earlier .” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 7 June 2017. <https://neurosciencenews.com/interference-short-term-memory-6855 />.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]City University of London (2017, June 7). Limited Short Term Memory Caused by Interference From Similar Items Seen Earlier . NeuroscienceNew. Retrieved June 7, 2017 from https://neurosciencenews.com/interference-short-term-memory-6855 /[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]City University of London “Limited Short Term Memory Caused by Interference From Similar Items Seen Earlier .” https://neurosciencenews.com/interference-short-term-memory-6855 / (accessed June 7, 2017).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]
Working memory (WM) is thought to have a fixed and limited capacity. However, the origins of these capacity limitations are debated, and generally attributed to active, attentional processes. Here, we show that the existence of interference among items in memory mathematically guarantees fixed and limited capacity limits under very general conditions, irrespective of any processing assumptions. Assuming that interference (a) increases with the number of interfering items and (b) brings memory performance to chance levels for large numbers of interfering items, capacity limits are a simple function of the relative influence of memorization and interference. In contrast, we show that time-based memory limitations do not lead to fixed memory capacity limitations that are independent of the timing properties of an experiment. We show that interference can mimic both slot-like and continuous resource-like memory limitations, suggesting that these types of memory performance might not be as different as commonly believed. We speculate that slot-like WM limitations might arise from crowding-like phenomena in memory when participants have to retrieve items. Further, based on earlier research on parallel attention and enumeration, we suggest that crowding-like phenomena might be a common reason for the 3 major cognitive capacity limitations. As suggested by Miller (1956) and Cowan (2001), these capacity limitations might arise because of a common reason, even though they likely rely on distinct processes.
“Interference and Memory Capacity Limitations” by Endress, Ansgar D. and Szabó, Szilárd in Psychological Review. Published online April 17 2017 doi:10.1037/rev0000071