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A working memory "theory of relativity": elasticity in temporal, spatial, and modality dimensions conserves item capacity in radial maze, verbal tasks, and other cognition.

  • Glassman, R B
Published Article
Brain Research Bulletin
Publication Date
Mar 15, 1999
PMID: 10372508


It is remarkable that working memory (WM) capacity for numbers of items remains modest, at approximately 7+/-2 (the so-called "magical number"), across a wide variety of kinds of material. Indeed, consideration of radial maze studies together with more traditional memory research shows that WM capacity remains fairly constant whether the items are verbal or visuospatial, and that this same capacity is true of other species as of humans. In contrast to their limited numerousness, WM items are extremely flexible in ways that are here brought under the heading of "dimensionality." Therefore, the physical items represented in WM, can vary widely in any quantitative characteristic and in the temporal pace at which they are encountered. Combinatorial considerations suggest that WM numerousness results from evolution of a middle ground between a sterile parsimony and an overwhelming excess, for organizing neurocognitive associations. Such natural selection seems likely to have worked opportunistically to yield diverse characteristics of neuronal tissue, from subcellular components to properties of ensembles, which converge on the required cognitive properties of WM. Priming and implicit memory may play supporting roles with WM. These intermediate-term memory phenomena allow certain kinds of background information to be accumulated at higher volume than seems possible from the textbook, "modal model" of memory. By expediting attentional focus on subsets of information already in long-term memory, priming may help WM chunks to emerge in limited number as appropriately scaled "figures" from the primed "ground." The larger neuronal dynamic patterns that embody these cognitive phenomena must regulate their microscopic component systems, automatically selecting those having parameters of temporal persistence, rhythm, and connectivity patterns that are pertinent to the current task. Relevant neural phenomena may include "Hebbian" associativity and persistence of firing patterns in prefrontal or hippocampal neurons. A conceivable basis for scaling and normalizing WM representations, along arbitrarily long or short ranges of any cognitive dimension, involves harmonic multiplier relationships among brain electrical rhythms and/or among topographical spatial periodic representations.

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