Timing the “magical number seven”: Presentation rate and regularity affect verbal working memory performance

Michael Schwartze, Rachel M. Brown, Emmanuel Biau, Sonja A. Kotz
Published Online:
07 May 2019

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The informative value of time and temporal structure often remains neglected in cognitive assessments. However, next to information about stimulus identity we can exploit temporal ordering principles, such as regularity, periodicity, or grouping to generate predictions about the timing of future events. Such predictions may improve cognitive performance by optimising adaptation to dynamic stimuli. Here, we investigated the influence of temporal structure on verbal working memory by assessing immediate recall performance for aurally presented digit sequences (forward digit span) as a function of standard (1000 ms stimulus‐onset‐asynchronies, SOAs), short (700 ms), long (1300 ms) and mixed (700–1300 ms) stimulus timing during the presentation phase. Participant's digit spans were lower for short and mixed SOA presentation relative to standard SOAs. This confirms an impact of temporal structure on the classic “magical number seven,” suggesting that working memory performance can in part be regulated through the systematic application of temporal ordering principles.

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