Does short-term memory develop?

Jones, G, Justice, L.V, Cabiddu, F, Lee, B.J, Iao, L-S, Harrison, N and Macken, B (2020) 'Does short-term memory develop?' Cognition, 198. e104200. ISSN 0010-0277

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Such is the consistency by which performance on measures of short-term memory (STM) increase with age that developmental increases in STM capacity are largely accepted as fact. However, our analysis of a robust but almost ignored finding – that span for digit sequences (the traditional measure of STM) increases at a far greater rate than span for other verbal material – fundamentally undermines the assumption that increased performance in STM tasks is underpinned by developmental increases in capacity. We show that this digit superiority with age effect is explained by the relatively greater linguistic exposure to random sequences of digits versus other stimuli such as words. A simple associative learning process that learns incrementally from exposure to language accounts for the effect, without any need to invoke an STM mechanism, much less one that increases in capacity with age. By extension, using corpus data directed at 2–3 year old children, 4–6 year old children, and adults, we show that age-related performance increases with other types of verbal material are equally driven by the same basic associative learning process operating on the expanding exposure to language experienced by the child. Our results question the idea that tests such as digit span are measuring a dedicated system for the temporary maintenance and manipulation of verbal material, and as such have implications for our understanding of those aspects of typical and atypical development that are usually accounted for with respect to the operation of such a system.

Item Type: Article
Keywords: short-term memory, digit span, child development, associative learning, capacity
Divisions: School of Sciences
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Date Deposited: 22 Feb 2022 18:33
Last Modified: 22 Feb 2022 18:33
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