Psychology of Working Memory Research Paper

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Working  memory  (WM)  can  be  thought of  as  the desktop   of  the   human   brain,   a  set  of  cognitive functions  that  allows humans  to keep track  of what they are thinking,  what they are doing, or where they are moment to moment. It holds information long enough to make a decision, to acquire vocabulary, to mentally  image  the  layout  of  a  home,  to  support creative thinking,  or remember what to do next. This article describes the theories that have been developed to explain these human abilities and some of the experimental  evidence for these theories that has been derived from empirical studies of healthy  adults  and children and of individuals  who suffer from cognitive deficits as a result of brain damage.

1.    Why  Is The Concept Of Working Memory Useful?

The concept  of working  memory  (WM)  has figured prominently in theories  and  explanations for human on-line  cognition,   as  well  as  offering  a  basis  for understanding how humans  accomplish  a wide range of everyday tasks. It can be thought of as a mental tool that   aids   survival;   if  an   organism   is  to   interact successfully with its environment, then  clearly there must be some means to record, on a temporary basis, its own most recent actions and to have some means to plan  actions  for  the  immediate  future.  This  gives a significant  advantage over organisms  entirely  driven by automatic responses to external stimuli that signal basic needs. Examples of how this mental tool is used in everyday interaction with the environment highlight its  utility.  Humans   use  WM  every  time  they  have to solve a problem, to perform a mental calculation, to recall where an object has just been laid down,  or to repeat a strange foreign word that has just been heard.

From  these examples, it is clear that  the concept is much broader than the more traditional idea of short-term memory. Indeed, the concept of WM arose from the need to provide  a theoretical  account  of a wide range of everyday tasks that  require  both  temporary memory and on-line cognition.  Until  the early 1970s the focus of research on this topic was on retention  of random sequences of words, letters, or digits, with the everyday   example   of  recalling  telephone   numbers while dialling.  However  a mental  faculty  would  not have  evolved  to  deal  with  these  relatively  artificial tasks,  and  therefore  WM  is intended  to encapsulate on-line  cognition  and  temporary verbal  and  visuospatial   memory   in  both   laboratory  tasks   and   in everyday life.

2.    Theoretical Views Of Working Memory

Most memory researchers consider WM to be a useful concept that uses relatively few assumptions to explain a wide range of experimental  evidence as well as important aspects of everyday cognition: it is a system with  limited  capacity,  which loses information over periods of seconds, whose contents are subject to displacement by new input, and which interacts and is supported by other parts of the cognitive system such as stored  knowledge  or  the  products  of perception. Most theories of WM include these features, however, there remains a debate as to its precise characteristics. Some theories view memory as a largely unitary system with  WM   as  the  sum  total   of  what   is  currently activated from the store of knowledge, skills, expertise, and past events. Others view WM as separate from the long-term  store  of knowledge  and  events,  but  even among these latter theories there is some discussion as to whether the cognitive functions are supported by a single flexible system  that  provides  both  temporary storage and on-line processing, or comprises multiple components, each specialized for a particular function. A recent book edited by Miyake and Shah (1999) provides  a comprehensive  discussion  of the different theories of WM.

The first type of theory, that WM is simply currently activated  knowledge, can account  for a wide range of data   from   experimental   psychology   with   healthy adults,  including the ability to bring rapidly  to mind information related  to  areas  of  personal   expertise. Theories of this kind can very successfully explain why chess masters can play several games simultaneously, expert waiters can recall details of meal orders  from large groups, and why burglars  can recall better  than householders, or indeed the police, details of houses related to their crime. Expertise extends the apparent capacity of WM, but there is some recognition  among proponents of this theory type of the need for a temporary memory  system  to  deal  with  completely novel  or  unfamiliar   material.   Such  theories  additionally   assume   inhibitory   processes  that   serve  to prevent  activation  of information that  is not  strictly relevant  to the task  in hand.  A breakdown in these inhibitory  processes has been suggested as one of the corollaries of normal  aging, with elderly people more prone  to  be misled  by irrelevant  information or  to wander off the main topic in a conversation.

The   strict   view   that    WM   is   no   more   than the   sum   total   of   currently   activated    experience and memories for events runs into difficulty when considering   dissociations   that   are   apparent  from studies  of healthy  adults  performing  more  than  one task  at  the same time. There  is substantial evidence that healthy adults can perform two quite demanding tasks  concurrently (such  as  holding  a  sequence  of digits  and  following  rapid  random movements  of a target). There is very little impact on the performance of either task,  and this can be accomplished  without any particular expertise or training.  Complementary studies have shown that  placing a heavy demand  on temporary memory  places few if any restrictions  on retrieval of stored knowledge about past events or that is linked to expertise. These findings suggest that  the human  cognitive system may comprise  several components,  each specialized for particular kinds of tasks and which may operate  in parallel.  The findings also point to the idea that WM is best considered as being separate from the system that stores knowledge of the world and of experiences.

The unitary  view of memory also has difficulty explaining patterns  of impairment and sparing in individuals  who  suffer  from  cognitive  deficits  as  a result of brain damage. The cognitive impairments  are often selective, for example, with very poor  performance on immediate  memory  tasks (such as repeating back   a  random  sequence  of  digits)  coupled   with normal  performance on long-term  retention  (such as recalling events that occurred weeks, months, or years previously). The converse dissociation also occurs, namely  normal  immediate  memory  contrasting with very poor  retrieval  from  long-term  memory  or difficulties in long-term  learning.  Theories assuming  that working  memory  comprises  temporary activation  of relevant  information from long-term  memory  would predict  that  if long-term  memory  access is impaired then temporary activation  should  also result in poor performance. Theories that assume WM to be a functionally  separate  part of the cognitive system can account more readily for the neuropsychological dissociations as well as the data patterns  from healthy adults, and therefore  may be more useful.

3.     The Case For Multiple Memory  Systems

During the first half of the twentieth century the prevailing view in North America was of human memory as primarily the result of observable learning of associations, and  theories  of learning  dominated. During the same period in Europe, memory as a cognitive concept was more salient, for example in the work  of  Bartlett,  Broadbent, and  Zangwill.  By the mid-1950s, the latter became the more generally agreed view, and a cognitive approach to memory gave rise to major new avenues of research. Very quickly it became clear that memory was best thought of as comprising at least two elements, with one focusing on temporary or  short-term retention  and  the  other  on  long-term retention. This reflected a dichotomy  proposed  in the seventeenth  century  by the British philosopher John Locke  who  suggested  that  the  ‘faculty of retention’ comprised   ‘contemplation’  or  ‘keeping  an  idea  in mind,’ and  that  this was separate  from  ‘memory’ or the  ‘storehouse  of these  ideas.’ This  distinction  appeared  again in the late nineteenth  century  when the North American  philosopher and  psychologist William James referred to primary  memory which he contrasted with retention.

During the 1960s, the contrast  between primary memory  and  what  then  became  secondary  memory was demonstrated experimentally. For example, when healthy adult volunteers are asked to retain sequences of words for immediate recall in any order, omissions tend to occur among words from the middle part of the list and much better  recall is observed for items close to  the  beginning  or  close to  the  end of each  list. If instead,  the volunteers  are asked  to  recall the items following a delay, performance on the last few items is no better  than  it is for items in the middle of the list. However, initial items in the list retain their advantage despite  the  delay.  These  contrasting patterns   were thought to support  the idea that two memory systems are reflected in recall of different parts of the list: the early list items are thought to be rehearsed  and transferred into a longer term memory system. As the list progresses,  rehearsal  becomes more  difficult and therefore  few items  are  transferred to  a  long-term store.  The  final  items  are  thought to  be  held  in  a temporary memory  system  whose  contents  are  lost unless recall is immediate. The advantage for the final items with immediate recall is known as the ‘Recency Effect.’

Further support   for  the  dichotomy   comes  from amnesic patients,  that  is people who, following brain damage, suffer from severe memory impairment that is characterized by an  inability  to  learn  new material. When such patients are tested for immediate free recall of word lists, their pattern of recall lacks the advantage for  the  initial  items  in the  list but  retains  a normal recency effect. This suggests damage  to the memory system responsible for retention  of the early items but normal functioning  of the memory system responsible for the recency effect.

A second experimental paradigm demonstrated that different  memory  codes  are  used  in immediate  and delayed recall. In one set of experiments,  volunteers were given lists of words that were similar in meaning (e.g., tall, broad,  wide, fat, huge, big, great) or were similar  in  sound,  that  is  they  were  phonologically similar (e.g., man, mad, mat, map, cap, can, cat), for immediate  recall or for recall after a delay. Recall of both  lists  was  compared   with  memory  for  lists  of words that were neither semantically nor phonologically similar  (e.g. car,  lock,  spoon,  book,  chair, pen,   dog).   With   immediate   recall,  phonologically similar  words  were recalled  more  poorly  than  were words from the other  lists, a phenomenon known  as the acoustic  similarity  or the phonological similarity effect. It is interesting  to note that  this effect appears even when the words were read by the volunteers, suggesting that the visually presented words were translated into a sound-based or phonological code in memory. In contrast, with delayed recall, the semantically similar words led to poorest recall. Because phonological similarity  affected  short-term but  not long-term retention, while semantic similarity showed the converse, this led to the conclusion that acoustic or phonological codes were a signature  of a temporary memory  system (for visual or auditory  presentation) and semantic codes were characteristic of the use of a longer term memory system.

4.    Developing The Concept Of Working Memory

The idea of primary and secondary memory provided a useful framework  to account  for the accumulating body of experimental data in support  of a two-component memory  system. However,  it was limited by the fact that  virtually all of the research relied on experiments  with  presentation and  recall  of  words, letters, or digits over relatively short time periods. It is clear that  we can also retain  information about  the appearance of objects and scenes as well as their names and descriptions. Therefore,  from the late 1960s, primary  memory  began  to  be seen as a system that could support  temporary retention  of different  kinds of material  as well as offering a means to process and manipulate that  material.  The  dominant or  ‘modal’ concept  then  became  that  of a  short-term, or  WM processing and storage system. This ‘modal model’ retained  the notion  that  information was transferred from the senses, via WM to secondary,  or long-term memory. It also incorporated the assumption that the system  has  a maximum  capacity  that  could  be employed  by storage,  by processing,  or by elements  of both.

However, a number  of features of this model came under pressure from the 1970s onwards.  The recency effect, once thought to be a major  source of support for  a  temporary memory  system,  was  also  demonstrated   in  longer  term  recall.  For   example,  when recalling visits to movies, where the car was parked, or attending  rugby matches,  individuals  can often recall details  of very recent  events but  have rather  poorer recollection of experiences that are more remote. This demonstrated that recency was not unique to a temporary memory  system. Also, there were demonstrations that  semantic coding, thought previously to be the prerogative  of long-term storage, could be used to  help  support  short-term retention. For  example, immediate free recall of real words is better than recall of  nonsense  words,  suggesting  that   the  additional stored information about  the real words (such as their meaning)   can  support   immediate   memory.   These findings did not wholly undermine the traditional view of  a  short-term memory,  because  there  was  other evidence that  a unitary  model of memory  could  not readily  explain,  such as that  mentioned  above  from dual task performance and from brain damaged individuals.  However,  the  findings  of  long-term  recency  effects  suggested   that   recency  might   be  a property of  any  human  memory  system  (short or long-term),  and the evidence for short-term semantic coding showed that the memory systems interact, with any one memory task probably drawing on several different aspects of the cognitive system depending on task demands.

Another  core assumption of the modal  model has come under  increasing strain  in recent years, namely the idea that information from vision or hearing could reach long-term  memory only through WM. For example, one famous neuropsychological case is that of patient  ‘PV’ who, following a stroke in the sylvian region  of the left hemisphere,  presented  with a very severe deficit in retaining  sequences of words or digits for immediate recall, but had no difficulty in retrieving details  of  autobiographical events  and  proved  well able to learn  new material.  The pattern for PV and other similar patients suggests that access to long-term memory does not depend on normal function in short-term  verbal  retention, either  for new learning  or for recall of past events (e.g. Vallar and Shallice 1990).

Additional evidence comes from patients who suffer from  a  neuropsychological disorder  known  as  unilateral  spatial  neglect.  This  arises  most  commonly from damage to the right parietal  cortex of the brain, and such patients typically are unable to report details of scenes or objects to their left, despite having normal vision. A few patients show unilateral neglect only for information in their mental image or immediate memory  for  scenes. For  example,  one  patient  ‘NL’ (Beschin et al. 1997) could quite readily report  details of everything in his immediate environment. However, if he was asked to close his eyes, he could only report from memory details that were on his right. Moreover, if asked to recall details of a familiar scene such as the square  in his home  town  he could  recall only those details that were on his imagined right. This was not a problem  of accessing his long-term  memory, because when asked to imagine himself standing at the opposite end of the square,  he could  then  report  details  that were now on his imagined right but had been omitted before  from  a  different   imagined   viewpoint.   This pattern demonstrates a clear dissociation  between the processes of perception, which for NL were perfectly normal,  the contents  of his long-term  memory, which again  was  normal,  and  the  operation of  his  visual working memory which was dramatically impaired. It suggests that  WM may not act as a gateway between perception  and long-term  memory as assumed by the modal  model and  by many recent introductory textbooks on memory.

Psychology of Working Memory Research Paper

Studies of healthy  adults  are pointing  in a similar direction.  Research  over the last decade has explored the possible constraints on creative thinking or mental discovery.  In one form  of these experiments,  volunteers are asked  to imagine a set of shapes  such as a triangle, a horizontal line, and a circle. They are then to  manipulate  and  combine   these  shapes  in  their mental  imagery to form a recognizable  object which they then name and draw. There is no correct answer except that  all the shapes must be included, and they must retain their original shape (e.g., a circle is not to be used as an oval). One possible response generated by a volunteer  in these experiments  is shown  in the upper part of Fig. 1. This demonstrates that  working memory can be used for mental discovery. However, if instead, volunteers are asked to combine the shapes of real  objects  rather   than  generic  shapes,  they  have much greater difficulty in doing so. One successful drawing from a volunteer is shown in the lower half of Fig. 1 which is an attempt  to combine the shapes of an apple, a banana, and a comb. The problem with object shapes was not their complexity, but the fact that they have a meaning  associated  with them.  This made  it difficult, for example, to think of an apple as anything other  than  an apple, because this requires reinterpretation  of the shape. This suggests that the contents  of working  memory  have  meaning,  and  they  can  only have meaning  if the perceived shape is interpreted in the context  of stored  knowledge.  That  is, it appears that  information from  the  senses goes through and activates the contents  of long-term  memory before it becomes available for retention or manipulation in working memory, quite the reverse of the traditional flow of information in the modal model of memory.

Psychology of Working Memory Research Paper

A final, rather  convincing  demonstration that  the contents  of working  memory  are  interpreted  comes from  experiments  with  ambiguous  figures.  Figure  2 can be interpreted in one of two ways, as a duck or as a rabbit,  and if we continue  to inspect the figure then our  interpretation ‘flips’ between one and  the other. However,  in some ingenious  experiments,  Chambers and Reisberg (1985, see Cornoldi  et al. 1996) showed this figure for only a brief time to a large number  of volunteers   who  were  asked   to  report   from   their memory what the figure depicted. All of the volunteers reported  it as either a duck or a rabbit,  but  none of them  could  then  reinterpret their  image in memory and  see the  figure as anything  other  than  their  first interpretation. Nevertheless,  they could  do  so when asked to draw their image on paper moments later. In other  words, again, the contents  of working memory are interpreted and under some circumstances are very difficult to reinterpret unless we can use the processes of  perception   with  a  physical  drawing.  This  offers quite  convincing  evidence that  perception  feeds into long-term memory which activates relevant knowledge for manipulation with working  memory  (for discussions  see Cornoldi  et  al.  1996, Helstrup  and  Logie 1999).

A second assumption of the modal model was that of WM  as a single, flexible, limited  capacity  system that  could  undertake both  temporary storage  and some  processing  of  the  material  being  stored.  This theme  remains  in one contemporary strand  of WM research  that  has focused  on measures  of individual differences  in  cognitive  capacity.  In  a  typical  task, healthy adult volunteers are presented with a series of sentences. The requirement is to recall the last word of each sentence after all the sentences have been presented.  The  number   of  sentences  is  gradually   increased until the participant can no longer accurately recall all of the final words, and the maximum number of words  that  can be recalled  is taken  as a measure of the individual processing and storage capacity. The measure in various forms has been shown to correlate well with other  measures  of cognitive ability such as reading comprehension or mental arithmetic performance. These correlations are then  used to argue  that WM is a mental  capacity  for processing  and  storage that can be applied to a wide range of both laboratory and   everyday   cognitive   tasks.   In   this   sense,  the sentence ‘span’ (or WM  capacity)  measure  has been quite useful, and offers the basis for a standardized test of cognitive ability. Set against its pragmatic value, the underlying  theoretical  assumptions are that there is a single flexible cognitive  system  supporting performance. One possible alternative view is that the task taps several aspects of cognition,  and that this same range of cognitive functions  is employed for other  complex cognitive tasks such as reading comprehension. A further   limitation   is  that   the  test  provides  only  a measure of memory in the context of processing (retention of the final words while reading). In a recent test of the above assumptions, a separate measure was taken  of processing  capacity  by asking volunteers  to verify each of the sentences for their semantic content without  a memory requirement. Memory  ability was measured independently by asking volunteers to recall lists of individual words. Participants were then asked to combine  verification  with recall of all of the final words, and the task demands were set at the maximum that  had  been determined  for  each  task  component separately.   If  WM   were  a  single  flexible,  limited capacity  system, we might expect performance to be very poor  when these two demanding  task  elements were combined.  Results showed that  despite the high processing  demand  and  high memory  demand,  performance  on both elements of the task remained very close to those obtained when the subjects were performing  the tasks independently.

These results point to the notion that temporary memory  might  be served by different  aspects  of the cognitive system from  those  used to support  on-line processing. This argument in turn  suggests that  WM might be best thought of as the orchestrated operation of  multiple  cognitive  instruments, each  one  with  a specific role for temporary memory or for processing.

5.    Working Memory  As A Multiple Component Workspace

The most influential  model of multicomponent WM was proposed  in 1974 by two British scientists, Alan Baddeley  and  Graham Hitch.  The  model  included some elements of the modal  model by incorporating processing  and memory,  however, these were viewed as  distinct.  Three  components were  originally  proposed to provide, respectively, temporary verbal storage,  temporary visuospatial  storage,  and  a coordinating  or  ‘executive’ function.  The  verbal  storage component  was  originally   named   the  articulatory loop, although subsequently  it has been referred to as the phonological loop, and to consist of two components, a passive phonologically  based temporary store and  a  mental  verbal  rehearsal  process.  The  visuospatial  component was originally  referred  to  as the visuospatial  scratch  pad,  but  has subsequently  been thought to comprise  a specialist temporary memory store (or visual ‘cache’) for retaining  the visual appearance of objects and  scenes linked to a system (an ‘inner scribe’) for retaining,  and possibly rehearsing, sequences of movements and more dynamic properties  of scenes. The coordinating mechanism  is referred to as the central executive, but in more recent years has been thought of as a collection of executive functions, including the coordination of multiple task performance, the allocation  of attention, and the implementation of  strategies  and  heuristics  used  in problem  solving and mental discovery or when learning and retrieval are demanding  of attention.

A schematic  representation of a recent  version  of the multiple component model is shown in Fig. 3. The diagram  illustrates  the various specialist subcomponents in addition  to the suggested flow of information from perception  through a long-term  knowledge base into working memory. In the latter sense the contents of WM comprise some of the products  of perception and of subsequent mental processing. WM can then be considered as a multicomponent workspace that stores and manipulates information which has been activated from  the  long-term  store,  rather  than  as a primary route  into long-term  memory  from the environment. Detailed discussion of the evidence for the features of the model can be found in Logie (1995), Miyake and Shah (1999) or Richardson et al. (1996).

This conception  of WM fits neatly with the notion that people are strategic in how they use their cognitive functions.   For   example,   recalling  a  list  of  words can  be  accomplished   by  rehearsing   the  sounds  of the words,  thinking  about  their meaning,  organizing them into groups, or imagining the objects or concepts to which they refer. As a result, a phenomenon such as the phonological similarity effect (see above) with visually presented  words  only appears  if the participants rely on mentally rehearsing the sounds of words prior to recall. There is evidence that some participants in these experiments  spontaneously use other  strategies that  might rely on visual or semantic codes, and for them  the phonological similarity  effect does not appear  (e.g. Logie et al. 1996). The  same argument holds  for other  well-established  phenomena such as the  recency  effect.  Such  strategic   use  of  different aspects of WM would not arise if the material did not activate knowledge stored in long-term memory prior to it being held in WM  for the period  until  recall is required.

Psychology of Working Memory Research Paper

6.    Applying The Concept Of Working Memory

The idea of a multiple  component WM  has proved useful in understanding some of the cognitive deficits suffered by individuals  with brain  damage  as well as accounting for important aspects of healthy cognition. Discussed above are some of the insights into cognitive deficits arising  from  the use of the model,  and  how studies of patients  with such deficits help the understanding of normal cognition. The application of WM theory   to  some  aspects   of  mental   discovery   and creative thinking has also been mentioned. There have been several other  areas of application, including the use of the phonological loop in explaining important aspects of vocabulary learning and mental arithmetic. For  example, one feature  of the phonological loop is that  it  can  retain  a  recently  heard  word,  mentally rehearse the word, and then generate the word as articulate  speech. A number of studies have examined the ability of young children  to repeat  aloud  new or nonsense words that they have just heard. Their ability to do so correlates well with their general competence in language and predicts their language ability several years later. Patients with severe verbal short-term memory  deficits  also  appear   to  have  difficulty  acquiring  new foreign vocabulary. These findings have led to the suggestion  that  the phonological loop is a cognitive function that has evolved to support  the acquisition of language, and that has the emergent property that it can support  temporary verbal memory.

Among the acquired skills that appear to depend on the  phonological loop  are  counting  and  mental  arithmetic. Keeping track of a running total in counting relies on subvocal rehearsal of the counting  sequence, while keeping track of partial solutions in mental arithmetic  again appears to rely on subvocalization of the subtotals  involved, unless the solution  is already well learned. For example, for most people the answer to 4 + 5 = ? would be available  without  the need for mental calculation,  because it would be recalled as an arithmetic  fact.  However,  the  answer  to  23 + 19 + 48 + 34 = ? would require a series of operations with temporary memory for the subtotals  (held in the phonological loop)  as each part  of the sum is completed.  Evidence  for  these  conclusions  arises  from studies   in  which  volunteers   perform   counting   or mental  arithmetic  while suppressing  articulation through repeating  an  irrelevant  word.  Accuracy  in counting  and  in arithmetic  is disrupted  by this procedure but is not disrupted  by performing  other irrelevant  tasks such as tapping  the table in a regular pattern or even when being presented  with irrelevant speech sounds. The phonological loop therefore seems to support  accuracy in counting  and arithmetic.

The  visuospatial  resources  of WM  can  support  a wide range of other  everyday cognitive tasks such as remembering  where we are on the page while reading, maintaining and updating a representation of objects in our  immediate  environment, mental  scanning  to plan a route around a familiar town, or imagining the configuration of furniture  in an empty room.

7.    Conclusion

WM is an evolving concept  which may be subject to change in the light of new evidence or questions  as to its detailed characteristics. Nevertheless,  it allows the interpretation of a great  deal of evidence and  phenomena from both laboratory tasks and from everyday experience.

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