Working memory across the adult lifespan: An adversarial collaboration

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Philosophy Psychology & Language

Abstract

The human ability to keep track of ongoing thoughts, plans, actions, current tasks, and changes around us is essential for everyday living. This ability is known as working memory, a system of the brain that allows us to focus on what we are doing, avoid distractions, switch from one task to another, solve problems, navigate around a shopping centre or city, drive on a busy motorway, prepare a meal, or do several things at once such as walking and talking. However, there are vigorous debates among scientists about what limits our working memory ability, and how those limits change as people move through middle age and into their older years. Sometimes such debates can lead to major new insights, but often researchers work with like minded people rather than with people who have opposing views. This can lead to an endless cycle of debate that hampers the genuine advance of understanding, and can result in ineffective use of limited research resources, effort and time.

The investigators are international leaders of three different scientific theories and approaches to understanding the important human cognitive ability of working memory. The proposal involves the rare occurrence of co-investigators who hold different views, agreeing to work together on a project that will directly investigate why their independent research programmes have previously generated different results with different implications for understanding the effects of age on cognition. Although holding differing scientific views we have successfully cooperated in editing a journal issue and organising scientific meetings, as well as agreeing to work together to help advance understanding of what changes in the cognitive ability of us all as we age, thereby allowing a solid basis for the collaboration.

From previous research results:

Theory 1 assumes (a) if working memory is full to capacity with e.g. words, then it will be impossible to make decisions or to remember visual patterns as well (b) there is one general working memory ability that declines across adult age.

Theory 2 assumes (a) working memory performance depends on how long attention is focused on memory or on decision making (b) mental rehearsal of words does not require attention (c) mental rehearsal and attention might each decline at different rates across adult age.

Theory 3 assumes (a) even healthy older people can cope with holding words and visual patterns in working memory while making quick and accurate decisions (b) people can have good memories without being quick decision makers and vice versa (c) there are several different working memory abilities and these decline at different rates across adulthood with some abilities relatively intact in old age

The research involves 17 experiments to examine how healthy adult volunteers aged 18-75 perform when they are asked to remember words or visual patterns at the limits of their working memory capacity, and are asked to make simple rapid decisions (such as whether a string of letters is a word or not, or taps into their general knowledge of the world). The experiments will look at how people cope with focusing on the memory task or on the decision task, or are asked to do both at the same time. Two of the experiments will involve large numbers of people performing a range of tests to see if, e.g. people who are good at memory tests are also quick and accurate on decisions, or good at memory and making decisions at the same time. Each theory makes different predictions for the results of our planned experiments. The planned research has significant potential for new theoretical developments, and for major advances in the understanding of this key human ability across the adult lifespan. Crucially, it will reveal whether all of working memory declines with age or whether some aspects remain largely intact, with important implications for design of technology for older users, and for lifelong education and training.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit and how?
This is a basic scientific research project and the major immediate impact will be on academic users with new sets of empirical data and new theory development and understanding of human working memory across the adult lifespan, driven by major research leaders associated currently with very different theoretical perspectives. The major non-academic impact during the project will be public engagement across at least three countries - UK, Switzerland and the USA, and the benefit to society will be an increase in public understanding of working memory and its importance in everyday life and how it changes with age. This will be achieved by use of press releases and regular project updates on a project website, creation of an animated film, participation by 2000 members of the general public in experiments for the research, experiments on the project website for people to test their own working memory at home worldwide via the internet, talks by the PI and co-investigators to general practitioners, technology interface designers, University of the Third Age (interest courses targeted at older people), the Edinburgh Science Festival and in museums and science exhibitions, stake holder groups, and policy makers. The PI, and Co-Is Cowan and Naveh-Benjamin have previously used this approach and the PI's previous work in collaboration with the BBC involving 500,000 people appears on the RCUK list of example case studies for public engagement.

The medium and long-term impact of the research beyond academia will involve combining new research outcomes from the project with previous, ongoing and future basic and applied research worldwide by the co-investigators and others, rather than from this project on its own. In this context, the results of the proposed project will have important practical implications for providing support to older people to enable them to continue to contribute to society and in the workplace, and to deal with increasingly complex technologies. There is a rapidly increasing reliance on the web to access services, goods, and health care, and for formal transactions such as tax returns or registering to vote, as well as in many occupations. In addition to visual problems and some difficulties in use of a mouse and keyboard by older people, navigating web pages can place high demands on working memory (e.g. Diaz-Bossini & Moreno, 2014; http://www.nngroup.com/articles/usability-for-senior-citizens). This can exclude many older people, and cause difficulties for those who try to engage with the technology. Despite this, the current version of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) Accessibility Guidelines and related guidelines from the US National Institute of Aging cover memory issues and related cognitive limitations very superficially. A well supported theory and understanding of working memory or its capacity limitations is crucial for developing evidence-based, actionable design guidelines that make the Internet more accessible for older people. PI Logie (e.g. Law et al., 2005; McKinlay et al., 2010; Wolters et al, 2009; in press) has addressed interface design issues in work funded by previous grants from ESRC, EPSRC, and in an ongoing EU FP7 project (end January 2016). He plans to capitalise on links with commercial web designers in the current EU project and seek separate follow on funding to start in year 2 of the proposed ESRC project to use advances in understanding of working memory from the latter in the separate planned project to create design guidelines for effective and inclusive web sites that are based on empirically derived cognitive theory.

Publications

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Belletier C (2021) Is the cognitive system much more robust than anticipated? Dual-task costs and residuals in working memory. in Journal of experimental psychology. Learning, memory, and cognition

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Cowan N (2020) How Do Scientific Views Change? Notes From an Extended Adversarial Collaboration. in Perspectives on psychological science : a journal of the Association for Psychological Science

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Doherty JM (2019) Dual-task costs in working memory: An adversarial collaboration. in Journal of experimental psychology. Learning, memory, and cognition

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Logie R (2018) Human Cognition: Common Principles and Individual Variation in Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition

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Logie RH (2019) Converging sources of evidence and theory integration in working memory: A commentary on Morey, Rhodes, and Cowan (2019). in Cortex; a journal devoted to the study of the nervous system and behavior

 
Description Experimental studies with healthy volunteers between the ages of 18 and 83 have shown that as people get older, there is a small, but significant deterioration in the ability to hold information in memory while carrying out some other task such as simple mental arithmetic. However, even for people in the older age range, this ability still functions at a high level providing there is no underlying brain damage due to e.g. disease, head injury, stroke, tumour or neurosurgery. When trying to remember and do something else at the same time, older people are just as good as younger people at managing or deciding to focus on what is held in memory or to focus on mental calculation. Other experimental studies in the project have shown that when young healthy adults are asked to hold information in memory while carrying out mental calculations, there is a small drop in their memory ability compared with when they only have to remember without doing something else at the same time, but most of what they need to remember remains intact. In addition, the ability to carry out mental arithmetic calculations is completely unaffected by the need to hold unrelated information in memory at the same time. In other words, people can carry out memory and mental calculation at the same time, with only a small loss of items in memory compared with doing either memory alone or mental calculation alone, and unlike some other mental abilities, this ability to do two things at once is very little affected by healthy aging. Additional research in the project has asked volunteers to report the strategies that they use during the experiments. From those reports, it is clear that people can minimise the effects of doing two things at once by changing the way in which they do each task. In particular, people report focusing on remembering slightly fewer items than they are asked to remember, and they start to depend on their general knowledge of known arithmetic sums instead of actually undertaking calculations. This allows them to show only a small drop in what they can remember while they are reponding to simple arithmetic sums. An important development within the project has been the establishment of an approach to research that involves collaboration between scientist who disagree. For each experiment, the different research groups agree on the details of the design of the experiment, and then confirm their different expectations for the outcome of the experiment. The experimental details and these expectations are recorded on the Open Science Framework before running the experiment. The experiment is then carried out in parallel in different laboratories that have different expectations. After the experiment, the data are analysed and the results are compared with the different expectations. Across multiple experiments, we have found that none of the three different sets of expectations completely fit with the results that we have found. This has allowed development of an integration between the different views rather than arguments that one view is correct and others are flawed which is a more common approach in research on human mental abilities. A new book on working memory, edited by three of the project partners (Logie, Camos, Cowan) has been completed and will be published by Oxford University Press in autumn 2020.
Exploitation Route The award is still active, with eight weeks remaining. Our experience of research collaboration among scientists who disagree has been shown to be valuable to other researchers researchers in other areas of research that tend to be dominated by scientific debates rather than our own collective and integrative approach to scientific understanding. The general approach has led to funding for an international workshop on 'adversarial collaboration' that will address debatges in four research topic that were not addressed within the current project. Researchers who attend will be asked to consider the design of research programmes that would lead to resolving rather than perpetuating debate in their area of research.This workshop will take place one month after the award is complete, and the approach of 'adversarial collaboration' will be the topic for a symposium at a major international conference in 2021, and for a special issue of a scientific journal, due to be published in 2021. The general approach used in this project could be applied to debates outside of science. A scientific paper describing the experience of being part of the current project has been accepted for publication, and new book edited by three of the project partners (Logie, Camos, Cowan) will be published by Oxford University Press in autumn 2020.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Healthcare,Other

URL http://womaac.psy.ed.ac.uk
 
Description The project and the findings are the subject of a five minute animated presentation for the general public. Also, the project has led to an on-line demonstration on the internet for the general public of the results and the understanding of how people can perform more than one task at the same time. This demonstration also is being used to collect further data to explore the generality of our results beyond the standard cognitive psychology laboratory. Both the animation and the internet demonstration are available at http://womaac.psy.ed.ac.uk
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Other
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Description Promotion of Joint International Research
Amount ¥17,940,000 (JPY)
Funding ID 1 8 K K 0 0 6 9 
Organisation Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) 
Sector Public
Country Japan
Start 09/2019 
End 03/2022
 
Description Psychonomic Society Leading Edge Workshop Programme
Amount $50,000 (USD)
Organisation Psychonomic Society 
Sector Academic/University
Country United States
Start 02/2020 
End 11/2021
 
Description Conference Presentation Belletier Strategies EWOMS Pavia August 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Belletier, C., Doherty, J., Jaroslawska, A., Rhodes, S., Cowan, N., Naveh-Benjamin, M., Logie, R., Barrouillet, P., & Camos, V. (2018) Strategic adaptations to dual tasking and concurrent articulation in working memory. Talk presented at the 9th European Working Memory Symposium (EWOMS). August 2018, Pavia (Italy).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Conference Presentation Cowan WoMAAC talk Psychonomic Society Amsterdam May 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Cowan, N., Rhodes, S., & Naveh-Benjamin, M. (May 2018). How Can Attention Be Distinguished From Multiple Modules?
Talk presented at the Psychonomic Society International Meeting. Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Conference Presentation Logie WoMAAC Psychonomic Society Amsterdam May 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Logie, R.H., Doherty, J.M., & Jaroslawska, A.J. (May 2018). Emerging Working Memory Capacity from Multiple Interacting Systems: E Pluribus Unum.
Talk presented at the Psychonomic Society International Meeting. Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Conference Presentation on WoMAAC to CSBBCS July 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Jason Doherty, Clement Belletier, Stephen Rhodes, Agnieszka Jaroslawska, Valerie Camos, Pierre Barrouillet,, Nelson Cowan, Moshe Naveh-Benjamin, Robert Logie. Working Memory across the Adult lifespan: an Adversarial Collaboration. Talk presented to Canadian Society for Brain, Behaviour, and Cognitive Science joint with Experimental Psychology Society. St John's, Newfoundland, Canada, July 2018.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Conference Presentation on WoMAAC to Psychonomic Society Nov 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Nelson Cowan, Stephen Rhodes, Jason M. Doherty, Agnieszka Jaroslawska, Clement Belletier, Moshe Naveh-Benjamin, Pierre Barrouillet, Valerie Camos, & Robert H. Logie. Scientific Arguments in the Airwaves and Inside the Head: Payoffs of an Adversarial Collaboration on Working Memory. Talk presented at the Psychonomic Society Annual Meeting, New Orleans, USA, November 2018.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Conference Presentation to The Psychonomic Society 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Strategic adaptation to dual task in verbal working memory. Talk presented by project partner Professor Valerie Camos, co-authored with the full project team, at the annual meeting of the Psychonomic Society, Montreal, Canada in November 2019. There were over 500 researchers in the audience with questions in the auditorium and widespread discussion afterwards.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.psychonomic.org/page/2019program
 
Description Conference Presentation- TBRS WoMAAC talk Psychonomic Society Amsterdam May 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Barrouillet, P., Belletier, C., & Camos, V. (May 2018). Temporal Constraints Limit Working Memory Capacity.
Talk presented at the Psychonomic Society International Meeting. Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Invited talk - Logie Malaysia April 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Logie Invited Talk on The Aging Mind to staff and students at Universiti Sains, Penang, Malaysia, April 2018.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description National newspaper coverage in India 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact There was coverage in an Indian National Newspaper, The Tribune, of a talk to the general public about the results of the project given at the University of Panjab, Chandigarh, India, in January 2018. The url was not recognised by the Research Fish entry below, but the report can be found at
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://www.tribuneindia.com/mobi/news/chandigarh/working-memory-important-for-reasoning-says-prof-lo...
 
Description Processing and storage-ESCOP 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Logie, R. H., Doherty, J. M., Jaroslawska, A. J., Cowan, N., Naveh-Benjamin, M., Rhodes, S., Barrouillet, P., Belletier, C. & Camos, V. (September 2017). Processing and storage in working memory: An adversarial collaboration. Talk presented at the 20th Conference of the European Society for Cognitive Psychology. Potsdam, Germany.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Project talk in Psychological Sciences, University of Missouir-Columbia. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact March 2019. Talk by Lead project PI, Professor Logie, to seminar for staff and postgraduate students in Psychological Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia. Generate very livel discussion within the lecture theatre and during a reception afterwards.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Simultaneous Storage and Processing - Poster 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Rhodes, S., Jaroslawska, A. J., Doherty, J. M., Belletier, C., Camos, V., Barrouillet, P., Cowan, N., Naveh-Benjamin, M., & Logie, R. H. (November 2017). Simultaneous storage and processing across the adult life-span. Poster presented at the 58th annual meeting of the Psychonomic Society. Vancouver, Canada.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Storage and Processing -Psychonomics 2017 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Logie, R. H., Doherty, J. M., Jaroslawska, A. J., Rhodes, S., Cowan, N., Naveh-Benjamin, M., Belletier, C., Barrouillet, P. & Camos, V. (November 2017). Storage and processing in working memory: An adversarial collaboration. Talk presented at the 58th annual meeting of the Psychonomic Society. Vancouver, Canada.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Strategic Adaptations for Dual Tasks - Poster 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Belletier, C., Doherty, J. M., Jaroslawska, A. J., Rhodes, S., Camos, V., Barrouillet, P., Cowan, N., Naveh-Benjamin, M., & Logie, R. H. (November 2017). Strategic adaptations to dual tasking and concurrent articulation in working memory. Poster presented at the 58th annual meeting of the Psychonomic Society. Vancouver, Canada.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Talk for the general public in Columbia Missouri 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact March 2019. Presentation to 'Science on Saturdays, a talk series for the general public on different areas of science organised by the University of Missouri-Columbia, USA. This generated lively discussion among the audience within the lecture theatre and during a subsequence reception. It also resulted in new volunteer participants for psychological research at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Talk to staff and students in Psychology, University of Aberdeen 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact November 2019. Professor Logie presented a talk on the WoMAAC project to staff, and post-graduate students in the School of Psychology, University of Aberdeen. This generated lively questions and discussions both in the lecture room and during a subsequent reception.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Talk to staff and students of the Toronto Area Memory Group 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact May 2019. One of the post-docs previously on the project, Dr S Rhodes, presented results from the project to researchers and postgraduate students working on the topic of human memory who are based in the area around Toronto, Canada. This generated lively discussion both in the lecture room and during a subsequent reception, and informally with colleagues in the weeks following the presentation.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL http://tameg.weebly.com/schedule4.html
 
Description Talks to specialist group on working memory 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact June 2019. Talks by Professor Logie, Dr Belletier, and Dr Forsberg on different aspects of the WoMAAC project to the lead UK researchers on working memory plus their postgraduate students.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Testing three working memory theories 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Logie, R. H., Doherty, J. M., Jaroslawska, A. J., Cowan, N., Naveh-Benjamin, M., Rhodes, S., Barrouillet, P., Belletier, C. & Camos, V. (June 2017). Testing three working memory theories in young adults. Talk presented at the UK annual Working Memory Discussion Meeting. Parcevall Hall, United Kingdom.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Two talks to general public during the Edinburgh Festival 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact August 2019. Professor Logie presented demonstrations and a talk for the General Public as part of the Edinburgh International Arts Festival, with the 'Curious' programme organised by the Royal Society of Edinburgh. This resulted in lively audience engagement with the demonstrations, and extended discussion after the presentation. This was presented twice, each to a different audience on consecutive days of the Festival.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.rse.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Curious-RSE-Summer-Events-Programme-2019.pdf
 
Description When the old do well 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Jaroslawska, A. J., Rhodes, S., Doherty, J., M., Belletier, C., Camos, V., Barrouillet, P., Cowan, N., Naveh-Benjamin, M., & Logie, R. H. (September 2017). When the old do at least as well as the young: Cognitive abilities that remain intact across the adult lifespan. Talk presented at the annual MRC Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology (CCACE) Research Day. Edinburgh, United Kingdom.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description WoMAAC animated video for general public 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A 5 minute animated video was created with the help of a professional animation company to illustrate and publicise the research project. The scientific team created 'voice-over' text that decribed the project and that was illustreated in the animation. A professional actor recorded the text of the voice over. The animation is available on YouTube athttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MddoGPYvIhA. It is also available on the project website http://womaac.psy.ed.ac.uk/. The animation has been mentioned in 6 talks to scientific audiences in the UK, in Germany, and in India, and in two talks to the general public in India. At the time of writing, the video has been viewed on YouTube 167 times. Note that the YouTube URL was not recognised by the Research Fish entry below, but can be found by a search for 'WoMAAC YouTube'
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018
URL http://womaac.psy.ed.ac.uk
 
Description WoMAAC website 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A website was set up for the project, with the acronym, WoMAAC. This describes the project, the scientific team, activities, and records tweets about the project.It is mentioned in all talks about the project to scientific audiences, members of the general public, and undergraduate students.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017,2018
URL http://womaac.psy.ed.ac.uk
 
Description WoMAAC: Simultaneous storage and processing - Talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Jaroslawska, A. J., Rhodes, S., Doherty, J. M., Belletier, C., Camos, V., Barrouillet, P., Cowan, N., Naveh-Benjamin, M., & Logie, R. H. (June 2017). WoMAAC: Simultaneous storage and processing across the adult lifespan. Talk presented at the UK Annual Working Memory Discussion Meeting. Parcevall Hall, United Kingdom.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017