Questioning short-term memory and its measurement: Why digit span measures long-term associative learning

Cognition. 2015 Nov;144:1-13. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2015.07.009. Epub 2015 Jul 23.


Traditional accounts of verbal short-term memory explain differences in performance for different types of verbal material by reference to inherent characteristics of the verbal items making up memory sequences. The role of previous experience with sequences of different types is ostensibly controlled for either by deliberate exclusion or by presenting multiple trials constructed from different random permutations. We cast doubt on this general approach in a detailed analysis of the basis for the robust finding that short-term memory for digit sequences is superior to that for other sequences of verbal material. Specifically, we show across four experiments that this advantage is not due to inherent characteristics of digits as verbal items, nor are individual digits within sequences better remembered than other types of individual verbal items. Rather, the advantage for digit sequences stems from the increased frequency, compared to other verbal material, with which digits appear in random sequences in natural language, and furthermore, relatively frequent digit sequences support better short-term serial recall than less frequent ones. We also provide corpus-based computational support for the argument that performance in a short-term memory setting is a function of basic associative learning processes operating on the linguistic experience of the rememberer. The experimental and computational results raise questions not only about the role played by measurement of digit span in cognition generally, but also about the way in which long-term memory processes impact on short-term memory functioning.

Keywords: Associative learning; Computational modelling; Digit span; Long-term memory; Sequence learning; Short-term memory.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Association Learning / physiology*
  • Computer Simulation
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Mental Recall
  • Models, Psychological
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Verbal Learning / physiology*
  • Young Adult