The individuation thread: Common discrete resource limits in working memory, attention and perception

28 May 2013
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How many things can you think about at once? How precise are your representations of those things? I'll present behavioral and neural evidence that these two critical aspects of working memory are best understood as distinct aspects of individual memory ability. This number/precision dichotomy dovetails with a discrete resource account of capacity limits, in which only a small number of items can be attended or maintained in memory while no information is available for additional items. We find that this perspective provides a productive way to understand experience-dependent changes in working memory performance, the mechanics of resource allocation across multiple items, and the relationship between memory capacity and fluid intelligence. Finally, I'll review recent studies in our lab that examine the nature of resource limits when observers try to direct attention towards multiple locations, or rapidly enumerate high contrast stimuli.  Our broad conclusion is that a common discrete resource may determine performance across this diverse array of memory and attention-limited tasks. Thus, we find that item limits in these procedures are strongly correlated across observers, and behavioral success is predicted by a common electrophysiological marker (the N2pc) of target processing.