The Development of Real-Time Stability Supports Visual Working Memory Performance: Young Children’s Feature Binding can be Improved Through Perceptual Structure

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Abstract

Working memory is a basic cognitive process that predicts higher-level skills. A central question in theories of working memory development is the generality of the mechanisms proposed to explain improvements in performance. Prior theories have been closely tied to particular tasks and/or age groups, limiting their generalizability. The cognitive dynamics theory of visual working memory development has been proposed to overcome this limitation. From this perspective, developmental improvements arise through the coordination of cognitive processes to meet demands of different behavioral tasks. This notion is described as real-time stability, and can be probed through experiments that assess how changing task demands impact children’s performance. The current studies test this account by probing visual working memory for colors and shapes in a change detection task that compares detection of changes to new features versus swaps in color-shape binding. In Experiment 1, 3- to 4-year-old children showed impairments specific to binding swaps, as predicted by decreased real-time stability early in development; 5- to 6-year-old children showed a slight advantage on binding swaps, but 7- to 8-year-old children and adults showed no difference across trial types. Experiment 2 tested the proposed explanation of young children’s binding impairment through added perceptual structure, which supported the stability and precision of feature localization in memory—a process key to detecting binding swaps. This additional structure improved young children’s binding swap detection, but not new-feature detection or adults’ performance. These results provide further evidence for the cognitive dynamics and real-time stability explanation of visual working memory development.

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