Where Working Memory Meets Long-Term Memory: The Interplay of List Length and Distractors on Memory Performance

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Abstract

Previous work regarding a counterintuitive benefit of increasing distractors on episodic long-term memory (LTM) has suggested that retrieval of memoranda in working memory (WM) after attention has been distracted may confer benefits to episodic LTM. The current study investigated 2 conceptions of how this may occur: either as an attentional refreshing of active memoranda within the focus of attention or as retrieval of a cohesive chunk of memoranda from outside the central component of WM. Given the literature suggesting that increasing the number of items to maintain in WM, or list length, incurs an attentional cost, the current study investigated whether increasing list length may reduce the beneficial impact of distractors on episodic LTM. In a series of three experiments, we manipulated list length and the number of distractors following the memoranda in a Brown-Peterson-like-span task. Despite profound negative effects of list length and distractors on initial recall, the results indicated that list length did not interact with the beneficial effect of distractors on final free recall of the items. Furthermore, final free recall was consistent across serial position, in line with the view that all of the memoranda are retrieved as a chunk after each distractor. These findings emphasize the notion that recovering inactive information from outside of the central component of WM may impact its long-term retention. The theoretical implications regarding how retrieval may be a means by which LTM processes influence WM are discussed.

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