Interference and Memory Capacity Limitations

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Abstract

Working memory (WM) is thought to have a fixed and limited capacity. However, the origins of these capacity limitations are debated, and generally attributed to active, attentional processes. Here, we show that the existence of interference among items in memory mathematically guarantees fixed and limited capacity limits under very general conditions, irrespective of any processing assumptions. Assuming that interference (a) increases with the number of interfering items and (b) brings memory performance to chance levels for large numbers of interfering items, capacity limits are a simple function of the relative influence of memorization and interference. In contrast, we show that time-based memory limitations do not lead to fixed memory capacity limitations that are independent of the timing properties of an experiment. We show that interference can mimic both slot-like and continuous resource-like memory limitations, suggesting that these types of memory performance might not be as different as commonly believed. We speculate that slot-like WM limitations might arise from crowding-like phenomena in memory when participants have to retrieve items. Further, based on earlier research on parallel attention and enumeration, we suggest that crowding-like phenomena might be a common reason for the 3 major cognitive capacity limitations. As suggested by Miller (1956) and Cowan (2001), these capacity limitations might arise because of a common reason, even though they likely rely on distinct processes.

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