EXP4507 Discussion


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You were just shown the longest string of items that you were able to correctly recall for each type of item. Was your previous prediction correct about what kinds of items you would be able to remember the most and the least?

In doing this task, most people say the words, letters, or even numbers to themselves either aloud, or in their head. This means that they would be held in the articulatory rehearsal loop component of working memory. You can think of the phonological loop as being like a few seconds of tape on which you can record the items you need to remember. So, if you are trying to recall longer words, you would be able to “record” fewer of them on that amount of tape—so your memory span is likely to be shorter for longer words than it was for shorter words. Also, storing information by repeating it to yourself makes you more likely to make a mistake when the letters sound similar compared to those that didn’t sound the same.

You might have noticed that you were able to remember only a few letters at a time when they were presented one by one, but you could remember dozens of letters when they were presented as words. This is because group of letters that forms a word can be remembered as a chunk. Let us illustrate more with another example. Read this row of letters out loud, pausing at every hyphen. Then try to remember the letters in order.


Chances are you found it difficult to remember 13 letters because this is beyond the memory span of most people. However, now try to remember the letters when “chunked” like this:


Because the chunks are now meaningful and familiar to you, your memory span seems to have “expanded” to 13 letters. This isn’t really the case; after all you are remembering only 4 acronyms for familiar concepts, and 4 chunks are clearly within the range of most people’s working memory.

Since Miller’s famous publication in 1956, it has generally been accepted that our immediate memory contains no more than 7 plus or minus 2 units, or chunks. But how big can a chunk be while still falling within Miller’s 7+/-2 span? The activity you just completed tested your memory span for digits, letters, one-syllable words, and two-syllable words. Do you think your memory span would change for longer chunks than these—three-, four-, or five-syllable words, or even chunks that are made up of strings of multiple words? Other research has looked at people’s memory span for multiword phrases and found that people can remember about four two-word phrases at a time, but only three eight-word phrases. So, while chunks can’t be an infinite size, there is some flexibility in how much information our working memory can handle at once.

DISCUSSION QUESTION: People often talk about the “mind as a computer”—do you think that is true when it comes to working memory? How might your working memory be different from the type of “memory” that a computer uses, i.e. RAM, random access memory?

Explanation & Answer

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