Working memory

The short-term memory (or working memory) is a device with wonderful capabilities, and it is a pity that it is often seen as just a bothersome pre-stage of the aspired long-term memory.

It plays a great role in processing both temporal and spatial perceptions. Baddeley’s model contains, among others, the “phonological loop” (audio over time) and the “visuo-spatial sketchpad”. And these dimensions are closely related:

  • Vision is not exactly like a photographic snapshot at a specific point in time. Rather, our eyes cover only a small area of our viewport at a time (like a torch flashing for short moments to light up a single spot in front of us us). As Nick Sousanis put it, they are “dancing and darting”, and we need to fill in all the rest of the picture from our memory, to connect the “disconnected snapshots” and make the view complete (“Unflattening”, p. 90, with a reference to E. Pelaprat and M. Cole.)

Photo by Flickr user stormcab, CC-BY-NC-SA

Photo by Flickr user stormcab, CC BY-NC-SA

  • A well-known study showing the increased hippocampus brain region of London taxi drivers, is often used to demonstrate their increased spatial sense of orientation. But a taxi route through London is also a temporal, sequential performance.

Now, the spatial and temporal functions may be not only be interrelated. Stephen Downes now expressed the idea that they are indeed similar:

“we perceive objects in time in the same way we perceive objects in space.” And “what about persistence across time? […] how do we distinguish between something that is fleeting and ephemeral and something that is (more or less) object-permanent? Enter working memory.”

This is a plausible idea, and it is fascinating, in particular in the light of McGilchrist’s account of isolating (spatially) and fixing (temporally) and of how similarly they are done by what he calls the emissary.

Downes then applies his new idea to the Cognitive Load Theory. This theory, which is often used in a ‘folk theory’ way, does not only remind us that the working memory is limited (to the famous 7 +- 2 ‘chunks’ of objects), but it also has a tendency to argue against broad presentations (simultaneous, rich) such as multimedial ones, and in favor for longer, slower, sequential approaches. But Downes suggests that

“cognitive load isn’t really a measure of the number of objects we are presented, but the length of time it takes to present the objects.”

Perhaps the perceived ‘load’ is greater when it takes longer before we are able to connect the sequential objects? Such that the number of unconnected objects causes the pain? This would be rather the opposite of what the Cognitive Load Theory suggests: that the integration of multiple items (e.g. visual and verbal) means effort and load. As I understand it, this effort is posited as a given.

(BTW There is a similar, posited effort that bugs me, in the theory of “split attention” by Chandler and Sweller. It would mean that there is increased effort to ‘dart’ one’s eyes into the upper right corner of my think tool (an offloaded ‘visuo-spatial sketchpad’). But this totally contradicts my experience, and it probably ignores that a saccadic eye motion (as shown in the picture above) is different from an intentional search for an item on a viewport. But this is another story.)

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