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The items on a memorized grocery list are not relevant in every aisle; for example, it is useless to search for the cabbage in the cereal aisle. It might be beneficial if one could mentally partition the list so only the relevant subset was active, so that vegetables would be activated in the produce section. In four experiments, we explored observers' abilities to partition memory searches. For example, if observers held 16 items in memory, but only eight of the items were relevant, would response times resemble a search through eight or 16 items? In Experiments 1a and 1b, observers were not faster for the partition set; however, they suffered relatively small deficits when "lures" (items from the irrelevant subset) were presented, indicating that they were aware of the partition. In Experiment 2 the partitions were based on semantic distinctions, and again, observers were unable to restrict search to the relevant items. In Experiments 3a and 3b, observers attempted to remove items from the list one trial at a time but did not speed up over the course of a block, indicating that they also could not limit their memory searches. Finally, Experiments 4a, 4b, 4c, and 4d showed that observers were able to limit their memory searches when a subset was relevant for a run of trials. Overall, observers appear to be unable or unwilling to partition memory sets from trial to trial, yet they are capable of restricting search to a memory subset that remains relevant for several trials. This pattern is consistent with a cost to switching between currently relevant memory items.

Original publication




Journal article


Mem Cognit

Publication Date





43 - 57


Memory, Visual search, Adult, Female, Humans, Male, Memory, Short-Term, Mental Recall, Pattern Recognition, Visual