Monday, January 21, 2008

The bouncer in the brain...

In the January issue of Nature Neuroscience a review with the title of this post by Awh & Vogel discusses experiments by McNab & Klingberg that may explain why there are significant differences between individuals in working memory, which is known to be limited to about three or four items. Individual differences in this memory capacity correlate robustly with measures of fluid intelligence and scholastic aptitude. The experiments explore the idea that variations in the efficiency with which information is selected to fill this limited workspace are involved. From Awh and Vogel:
One perspective on individual differences in memory capacity views variation in terms of the number of 'slots' that are available for short-term storage. However, apparent capacity differences might also be explained by variations in the efficiency with which information is selected to fill this limited workspace. A useful analogy for understanding the difference between these two ideas is the difference between the space that is available in an exclusive nightclub and the effectiveness of the bouncer who grants admission. From this perspective, high-capacity individuals may have a better bouncer rather than a larger nightclub...brain imaging evidence from McNab and Klingberg implicates a specific neural region that may serve as the bouncer for the mind.

This hypothesis is consistent with a growing body of evidence that shows tight links between attention and working memory. Some theorists have even suggested that they are essentially the same mechanism. This viewpoint is supported by the strong overlap in the cortical areas that are active during attention and working-memory tasks, as well as evidence that directly implicates attention in the active maintenance of information in working memory. Furthermore, an individual's working-memory capacity is highly predictive of his or her performance on a wide range of attention tasks
Here is the abstract from McNab and Klingberg:

Our capacity to store information in working memory might be determined by the degree to which only relevant information is remembered. The question remains as to how this selection of relevant items to be remembered is accomplished. Here we show that activity in the prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia preceded the filtering of irrelevant information and that activity, particularly in the globus pallidus, predicted the extent to which only relevant information is stored. The preceding frontal and basal ganglia activity were also associated with inter-individual differences in working memory capacity. These findings reveal a mechanism by which frontal and basal ganglia activity exerts attentional control over access to working memory storage in the parietal cortex in humans, and makes an important contribution to inter-individual differences in working memory capacity.

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