Development of visual working memory precision in childhood

Stephanie Burnett Heyes, Nahid Zokaei, Irene van der Staaij, Paul M Bays, Masud Husain
Developmental Science 2012, 15 (4): 528-39
Visual working memory (VWM) is the facility to hold in mind visual information for brief periods of time. Developmental studies have suggested an increase during childhood in the maximum number of complete items that can simultaneously be stored in VWM. Here, we exploit a recent theoretical and empirical innovation to investigate instead the precision with which items are stored in VWM, where precision is a continuous measure reflecting VWM resolution. Ninety boys aged 7 to 13 years completed one-item and three-item VWM tasks in which stimuli were coloured bars varying in orientation. On each trial, participants used a rotating dial to reproduce the probed stimulus from memory. Results show linear age-related improvement in recall precision for both one-item and three-item VWM tasks. However, even the youngest age group stored a significant amount of information about all three items on the difficult 3-item VWM task. Importantly, the development of VWM precision was not accounted for by development on a sensorimotor control task. Whereas storage of a single complete item was previously thought to be well within the capacity limitations of the current age range, these results suggest protracted development during childhood and early adolescence in the resolution with which single and multiple items are stored in VWM. Probabilistic modelling of response distribution data suggests that improvement in VWM performance is attributable to a specific decrease in variability of stored feature representations, rather than to a decrease in misbinding or random noise. As such, we highlight a novel, potentially developmentally plausible mechanism that may underlie developmental improvement in VWM performance, independent of any alterations in the maximum number of complete items which can be stored.

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