Towards an integrative model of visual short-term memory maintenance: Evidence from the effects of attentional control, load, decay, and their interactions in childhood.
Shimi A., Scerif G.
Over the past decades there has been a surge of research aiming to shed light on the nature of capacity limits to visual short-term memory (VSTM). However, an integrative account of this evidence is currently missing. We argue that investigating parameters constraining VSTM in childhood suggests a novel integrative model of VSTM maintenance, and that this in turn informs mechanisms of VSTM maintenance in adulthood. Over 3 experiments with 7-year-olds and young adults (total N=206), we provide evidence for multiple cognitive processes interacting to constrain VSTM performance. While age-related increases in storage capacity are undisputable, we replicate the finding that attentional processes control what information will be encoded and maintained in VSTM in the face of increased competition. Therefore, a central process to the current model is attentional refreshment, a mechanism that it is thought to reactivate and strengthen the signal of the visual representations. Critically, here we also show that attentional influences on VSTM are further constrained by additional factors, traditionally studied to the exclusion of each other, such as memory load and temporal decay. We propose that these processes work synergistically in an elegant manner to capture the adult-end state, whereas their less refined efficiency and modulations in childhood account for the smaller VSTM capacity that 7-year-olds demonstrate compared to older individuals. We conclude that going beyond the investigation of single cognitive mechanisms, to their interactions, holds the promise to understand both developing and fully developed maintenance in VSTM.