Temporal precision and the capacity of auditory-verbal short-term memory

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Gilbert, Rebecca Anne ; Hitch, Graham James ; Hartley, Tom

The capacity of serially-ordered auditory-verbal short-term memory (AVSTM) is sensitive to the timing of the material to be stored, and both temporal processing and AVSTM capacity are implicated in the development of language. We developed a novel “rehearsal-probe” task to investigate the relationship between temporal precision and the capacity to remember serial order. Participants listened to a sub-span sequence of spoken digits and silently rehearsed the items and their timing during an unfilled retention interval. After an unpredictable delay, a tone prompted report of the item being rehearsed at that moment. An initial experiment showed cyclic distributions of item responses over time, with peaks preserving serial order and broad, overlapping tails. The spread of the response distributions increased with additional memory load and correlated negatively with participants’ auditory digit spans. A second study replicated the negative correlation and demonstrated its specificity to AVSTM by controlling for differences in visuo-spatial STM and nonverbal IQ. The results are consistent with the idea that a common resource underpins both the temporal precision and capacity of AVSTM. The rehearsal-probe task may provide a valuable tool for investigating links between temporal processing and AVSTM capacity in the context of speech and language abilities.
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