A meta-analysis of executive components of working memory

Cereb Cortex. 2013 Feb;23(2):264-82. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhs007. Epub 2012 Feb 7.


Working memory (WM) enables the online maintenance and manipulation of information and is central to intelligent cognitive functioning. Much research has investigated executive processes of WM in order to understand the operations that make WM "work." However, there is yet little consensus regarding how executive processes of WM are organized. Here, we used quantitative meta-analysis to summarize data from 36 experiments that examined executive processes of WM. Experiments were categorized into 4 component functions central to WM: protecting WM from external distraction (distractor resistance), preventing irrelevant memories from intruding into WM (intrusion resistance), shifting attention within WM (shifting), and updating the contents of WM (updating). Data were also sorted by content (verbal, spatial, object). Meta-analytic results suggested that rather than dissociating into distinct functions, 2 separate frontal regions were recruited across diverse executive demands. One region was located dorsally in the caudal superior frontal sulcus and was especially sensitive to spatial content. The other was located laterally in the midlateral prefrontal cortex and showed sensitivity to nonspatial content. We propose that dorsal-"where"/ventral-"what" frameworks that have been applied to WM maintenance also apply to executive processes of WM. Hence, WM can largely be simplified to a dual selection model.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*