Tone Series and the Nature of Working Memory Capacity Development

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Recent advances in understanding visual working memory, the limited information held in mind for use in ongoing processing, are extended here to examine auditory working memory development. Research with arrays of visual objects has shown how to distinguish the capacity, in terms of the number of objects retained, from the precision of the object representations. We adapt the technique to sequences of nonmusical tones, in an investigation including children (6–13 years, N = 84) and adults (26–50 years, N = 31). For each series of 1 to 4 tones, the participant responded by using an 80-choice scale to try to reproduce the tone at a queried serial position. Despite the much longer-lasting usefulness of sensory memory for tones compared with visual objects, the observed tone capacity was similar to previous findings for visual capacity. The results also constrain theories of childhood working memory development, indicating increases with age in both the capacity and the precision of the tone representations, similar to the visual studies, rather than age differences in time-based memory decay. The findings, including patterns of correlations between capacity, precision, and some auxiliary tasks and questionnaires, establish capacity and precision as dissociable processes and place important constraints on various hypotheses of working memory development.

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