The Variability Puzzle in Human Memory

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Memory performance exhibits a high level of variability from moment to moment. Much of this variability may reflect inadequately controlled experimental variables, such as word memorability, past practice and subject fatigue. Alternatively, stochastic variability in performance may largely reflect the efficiency of endogenous neural processes that govern memory function. To help adjudicate between these competing views, the authors conducted a multisession study in which subjects completed 552 trials of a delayed free-recall task. Applying a statistical model to predict variability in each subject’s recall performance uncovered modest effects of word memorability, proactive interference, and other variables. In contrast to the limited explanatory power of these experimental variables, performance on the prior list strongly predicted current list recall. These findings suggest that endogenous factors underlying successful encoding and retrieval drive variability in performance.

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