Working Memory and Attention

Today in a world where information is everywhere, the human notion of attention is stuck in a state of shift. According to statistics from Statistic Brain, sourced from Weinreich et al.’s “Not Quite the Average: An Empirical Study of Web Use,” 12 seconds was the normal attention span back in 2000 (Attention Span Statistics 2015). It is now 2015, and the average attention span is 8.25 seconds, shorter than that of a goldfish whose attention span clocks in at 9 seconds (Attention Span Statistics 2015).

Research into attention is primarily based in cognitive psychology studies, and the type of attention that we will look at here is also based in this arena. An important concept to examine is that of working memory, a concept first developed by Baddeley and Hitch. This concept says that the brain has a central executive which acts as the boss of the system, allocating information to two different subsystems (McLeod 2008). Along with allocating information, the central executive also deals with cognitive tasks such as mental arithmetic and problem solving (McLeod 2008).

One subsystem which the central executive allocates information to is the visuo-spatial sketchpad (VSS), which stores and processes information in a visual or spatial form, this system is also used for navigation (McLeod 2008). The other system that has information allocated to it is the phonological loop (PL) which stores information that is spoken and written (McLeod 2008). The PL consists of two parts which include (McLeod 2008):

• Phonological Store: which deals with speech perception and stores information that is speech based.
• Articulatory Control Process: which deals with speech production, also used to rehearse and store verbal information from the phonological store.

Barrouillet et al. (2013) look at working memory and, in deference to Baddeley and Hitch, say that it is a limited-capacity system which shares the resources it uses to process and store information. This is where we should be paying attention, because our attention span dictates the effectiveness of working memory. Because working memory shares the resources it uses to process and store information, a trade-off phenomenon occurs where our performance decreases because our cognitive load increases, effectively reducing the amount of information being processed which is then lost (Barrouillet et al. 2013).

This resource sharing takes place when our cognitive load increases, which can result from the exercise of multitasking. Hembrooke and Gay (2003) look at multitasking and time, and find that multitasking does impact the allocation of resources to take in and process information. However, these processes are more strongly affected by time as their study showed that sustained distraction, e.g. browsing online irrespective of content, was the enemy of multitasking (Hembrooke & Gay 2003).

Although, Hembrooke and Gay (2003) don’t rule out the use of multitasking, but believe that, “if one is adroit at staccato-like browsing, processing multiple inputs simultaneously may not suffer to the same extent,” effectively saying that short and sharp periods of selective attention may not hinder your working memories ability to take in and process information.

To gauge whether the rapid switching of attention helps working memory retain more information, I asked my dad and mum, Tim and Julianne Foster, to help me with a little experiment. Our experiment took place during a three minute ad break which involved Tim and I counting how many ads there were between the program we were watching, whilst reading this article about Malcolm Turnbull’s new ministry and trying to remember five of the listed names and the positions they held, while texting each other at the same time. Julianne’s role in the experiment was to count how many ads occurred in the ad break for accuracy and to quiz us at the end about the names and positions of people in Turnbull’s ministry.

The results of this little experiment were interesting as they, to a degree, validate Hembrooke and Gay’s idea that the rapid switching of attention should decrease the cognitive load on working memory. In regards to the counting of ad breaks, Tim was closest to the mark with his answer of five while my answer was eight, only two over the ad total of six. In terms of remembering names and positions, Tim was able to correctly remember two while I was able to remember three.

I think Hembrooke and Gay’s idea has some merit but that it should allow for some degree of inaccuracy, as Tim and I were not able to fully take in and process the information in front of us. All in all, I would say that Barrouillet et al (2013) have it right when they say that the slightest distraction of attention can impact the processing of information stored in working memory. If this is the case, than it is more important than ever that we learn to focus our attention to get the most out of our interactions with information.

Hembrooke, H, Gay, G 2003, The Laptop and the Lecture: The Effects of Multitasking in Learning Environments, Journal of Computing in Higher Education, Vol. 15, pp. 01-19.

Barrouillet, P, Bernardin, S, Portrat S, Vergauwe, E, Camos, V 2013, Time and Cognitive Load in Working Memory, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 01-56.

McLeod, S 2008, Working Memory, Simply Psychology, viewed 21 September 2015,

Image: Brain Power by Alan Ajifo


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