Working memory resources are shared across sensory modalities

V R Salmela, M Moisala, K Alho
Attention, Perception & Psychophysics 2014, 76 (7): 1962-74
A common assumption in the working memory literature is that the visual and auditory modalities have separate and independent memory stores. Recent evidence on visual working memory has suggested that resources are shared between representations, and that the precision of representations sets the limit for memory performance. We tested whether memory resources are also shared across sensory modalities. Memory precision for two visual (spatial frequency and orientation) and two auditory (pitch and tone duration) features was measured separately for each feature and for all possible feature combinations. Thus, only the memory load was varied, from one to four features, while keeping the stimuli similar. In Experiment 1, two gratings and two tones-both containing two varying features-were presented simultaneously. In Experiment 2, two gratings and two tones-each containing only one varying feature-were presented sequentially. The memory precision (delayed discrimination threshold) for a single feature was close to the perceptual threshold. However, as the number of features to be remembered was increased, the discrimination thresholds increased more than twofold. Importantly, the decrease in memory precision did not depend on the modality of the other feature(s), or on whether the features were in the same or in separate objects. Hence, simultaneously storing one visual and one auditory feature had an effect on memory precision equal to those of simultaneously storing two visual or two auditory features. The results show that working memory is limited by the precision of the stored representations, and that working memory can be described as a resource pool that is shared across modalities.

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