Author Archives: mwalia

Working Memory Capacity and Mind Wandering

In class we have discussed working memory and its functioning, but I found a study that delves into the phenomenon of mind wandering in relation to working memory.  As we know form class, Working Memory Capacity (WMC)  is an individual’s in-the-moment, dynamic phenomenology of cognitive ability. Mind Wandering is a person’s subjective experience of task-unrelated thought such as getting distracted or “zoning-out”. Mind wandering can often lead to errors in memory recall. In this study, they looked at mind wandering as an indicator of both momentary failures and enduring deficits in executive control functioning. They predicted that people with a higher working memory capacity will be less prone to mind wandering, and people with a lower working memory capacity will be more prone to mind wandering. The main question being asked in this study is whether or not one’s working memory capacity predicts their likelihood of mind-wandering in daily life. They were also interested in whether people “who differ in intellectual capability also differ in subjective experience” and whether people “who differ in working memory capacity also differentially experience the disruptive effects of mind wandering in daily life, at least in cognitively demanding contexts”.  The results were consistent with their hypothesis that people of lower working memory capacity mind-wandered more than people of higher working memory capacity when their activities required more effort and focused concentration.  They also found that people with lower working memory capacity were more prone to making errors. They concluded that it seems to be the case that executive control over one’s thoughts therefore seems to contribute to the effective regulation of behavior. I just thought that this article was interesting because I feel that mind wandering is something that many of us can relate to. I think that many of us have found ourselves “zoning out” or “day dreaming”. 

Kane, M. J., & McVay, J. C. (2012). What mind wandering reveals about executive-control abilities and failures. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(5), 348–354.

Testing the Testing Effect in the Classroom

In class we have talked about self-testing as a method of studying. This study specifically examines the testing effect and the extent to which different forms of quizzing improve test scores.

The purpose of the research conducted in this article was to experimentally examine the testing effect for content presented throughout the semester in a college course. They wondered if positive testing effects would emerge in the context of a standard course. One central issue raised by the testing effect findings is the extent to which the repeated exposure of the material stimulated by tests plays a role in the positive impact of intervening tests on final test performance. 

They were interested in the degree to which testing effects in the classroom reflect mnemonic processes that are more than just additional exposure of the content. They hypothesized that testing effects would emerge (quizzes with feedback would produce better performance on final tests than not tested/read facts), and they expected that testing (quizzing with feedback) would be superior to the reading content only condition in terms of increasing final test scores. They also predicted that short answer quizzes would produce greater gains in performance on unit exams than would multiple choice quizzes. Performance was generally better for facts exposed in the quiz condition than for facts that were not exposed. 

They found that the advantage of multiple choice performance over short answer performance is consistent with the idea that recognition is a less demanding retrieval task than recall. There was also a main effect of quiz type such that facts assigned to the Short Answer quiz conditions (exposed and non-exposed) were more accurately learned and retained than facts assigned to either the Multiple Choice or Read Only questions. There was a significant advantage of short answer quizzing over multiple choice quizzing and read only questions, but no significant advantage of multiple choice quizzing relative to reading. Those results seemed consistent with findings in the basic memory literature, used very different materials, and showed that recall promotes retrieval processing that is more mnemonically potent than does recognition. 

They also showed that cued recall quizzes enhanced performance significantly more than did recognition quizzes on a subsequent test in which the retrieval cues had been altered. Clearly, learning and retention were better when students were given feedback after missing a short answer question than reading the fact (twice) without being quizzed. Thus, it appears that giving feedback to items that were not recalled promoted integrated learning of the elements comprising the tested items. The findings suggest that feedback for missed multiple choice facts did not benefit learning more so than additional exposure (RO). 

Quizzing improved performance on two unit exams and a cumulative final exam for content covered in a college course relative to content that was not quizzed. Consistent with basic research on the testing effect, the benefit for short answer quizzing was more robust than the benefit for multiple choice quizzing. Quizzing that required recall of target information (short answer quizzes), but not quizzing that required recognition (multiple choice quizzes), was more effective than presenting the target information for reading. 

These findings support what we have discussed in class, that testing is a verified way of improving scores and the deeper the form of processing that you engage in (like short answer versus multiple choice) and the more frequently you engage in these kinds of testing, the more test scores seem to improve.



McDaniel, M. A., Anderson, J. L., Derbish, M. H., & Morrisette, N. (2007). Testing the testing effect in the classroom. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 19(4-5), 494–513.

How Inside Out Explains Memory: Accurately and Inaccurately

The 2015 Pixar film Inside Out depicts an 11 year-old girl named Riley, and how her emotions influence her memories. In the film, memories are depicted as a glowing orb of colors that reflect one of five of the emotions that is linked to said memory; yellow for joy, blue for sadness, red for anger, purple for fear, and green for disgust. The writers of the film deliberately consulted with neuroscientists and psychologists to help make sure that their psychological science was accurate. The film did depict some aspects of memory correctly, however there were still others that missed the mark. The purpose of Inside Out is to illustrate how emotions influence our memories. The film accurately depicts the way in which the two memory systems of Implicit and Explicit memory are connected when events have emotional significance, and the way that working memory and long-term memory function. The film inaccurately depicts the ways in which memories are stored, connected, and forgotten. 

Implicit, or procedural, memories are the unconscious memories; things that we are unaware of, such as skills, habits, or reflexes. For example, you can teach a person with amnesia, who cannot make new memories, how to play the piano. Yet, every time you ask them if they can play the piano, they will say that they do not know how to play the piano, and that this is their first time ever playing the piano. In the film, we see the emotions pulling up past memories of Riley playing hockey and ice skating with her family as she is about to play hockey in real life. This shows how her memories from the past are implicitly recalled when she is about to engage in a task that requires them, even unconsciously. Explicit, or declarative, memories are conscious memories; things that we are aware of, such as facts and events. For example, I explicitly remember that last week I took a quiz in this class. In the film, when Riley is talking to her class about a specific time back home, she recalls that specific event in her mind episodically as well, meaning that she can visualize the storyline of the memory. Recalling information from explicit memory requires conscious awareness that that event has occurred. These two processes can be distinct, but they can also be connected. Attaching emotions to an event gives that explicit memory some context, which also makes it stronger. This is the principle behind deep-processing; that associating meaning with emotions makes the association stronger and more likely to be recalled. This idea is demonstrated in the film when Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong says that memories “fade” when Riley doesn’t care about them anymore. We see in the film that memories that aren’t linked with strong emotions do in fact seem to “fade” until they are discarded and forgotten. This process of forgetting is inaccurate but will be discussed later. For now, the point of this argument is that memories without emotional attachment, or shallow-processing, are not as strong and therefore are not recalled as frequently and will have a harder time being retrieved from long-term memory. 

Our brains are always in working memory and never in long-term memory. Working memory is the active memory system of everything that is going on at the moment. It keeps knowledge in mind for cognitive functions like learning and reasoning, enabling us to compare and contrast information. Working memory is limited in duration and capacity; it goes away quickly and requires rehearsal to be maintained. Long-term memory is memory that is stored to be recalled later. This type of memory has a seemingly unlimited duration and capacity. The film depicts working memory as the initial formation of memories that occurs in “headquarters,” where her emotions live, as events occur. The film accurately depicts that we encode events from our daily life without a deliberate intention to learn or remember them. Long-term memory is depicted as being stored at the end of the day during sleep. Each night, when Riley goes to sleep, the “headquarters” shuts down and the memories from that day all get sucked up through a vacuum tube to be sent to be encoded in long-term memory. The principle of the interaction between working memory and long-term memory is accurate. During the day, we use our working memories to keep track of small tasks and facts. It’s only once we enter deep sleep that our brains really cement some of the most important memories for much longer. However, this is not entirely how memory works.

Memories are not stored as individual pieces of thought that sit on their own, they are processed by separate systems for basic cognitive functions. Vision, hearing, language, emotion and more are all processed in different places and are connected. Visual components are processed by the visual system, auditory components by the auditory system, emotional components by the limbic system. Memories are stored in bits and pieces all over your brain and are all related to one another. There is no globe sitting on a shelf that can be retrieved and used to reproduce the event exactly as it happened. Memories are stored in component parts. When we retrieve a memory, we reconstruct it from those component pieces. Each individual memory shares features with many other memories; such as the processing components that encode each element, details like who was there, where and when the event occurred, and abstract themes like spiritual experiences and professional accomplishments. The film tries to capture our ability to identify overarching themes and causal connections among our memories by showing how “core memories” fuel aspects of Riley’s personality. This symbol is used in vain, however, because rather than depicting memory as collections of interrelated memories, this depiction emphasizes individual memories. Although we may have specific self-defining memories, our memory is less like a book shelf and more like a web of intertwined memories that interact together. 

The process of forgetting is also depicted inaccurately. The memory orbs are shown as becoming less colorful and more dim as they have been in long-term memory longer without being retrieved. They eventually turn dark and gray and are sent to the “memory dump” where they turn to dust and disappear forever. This idea of concurrent with the decay theory of forgetting, which suggests that time leads to permanent loss of information. This is a common but unsupported theory that has been much debated and criticised by psychologists, however. Now, they tend to think of forgetting more as a temporary lapse in memory. There is prevalent research that supports the idea that although some information cannot be recalled at will, there is still evidence of prior learning. The information may come to mind with the right cue, or it may be more quickly recognized, or it may take less time to re-learn that information. Full-fledged memories may fade, but they leave some trace behind. 

  Inside Out depicts memory accurately in some ways, but it can still be misleading in others. The writers did a good job with depicting implicit and explicit memory as distinct processes that work together with emotions to create a stronger memory. They also properly depicted working memory and the basic functions of  long-term memory. Unfortunately, they were less accurate at depicting the specific ways that memories are stored and connected in long-term memory as well as the process of forgetting. All in all, the film is still impressive in their efforts to maintain accuracy.

Parallel Processing: More complex than it may seem.


Parallel processing is a much more complex process than it sounds. It is the combined process of both top-down and bottom-up processing occurring simultaneously in the brain at all times. Bottom-up processing is the building up of complex processes in order to eventually perceive something. That is, taking into account the most basic aspects of a stimulus first and sequentially building up information in order to experience the entire thing fully. Top-down processing uses your experiences, expectations, and beliefs to guide your perception. An example of this is your ability to understand that a person’s legs are not actually missing if they are cut off of your field of view by, say, a desk that they are sitting behind. Parallel processing says that rather than doing one of these functions or the other, your brain does them unconsciously and simultaneously in order to create a full picture of whatever stimulus your brain is trying to process. 

A study was conducted in by Buetti, Cronin, Madison, Wang, and Lleras (2016) to better understand parallel processing in human vision. Observers were asked to find a specific object in a scene, and the researchers found the observers used the specific architecture from the scene to compare all locations in the world in parallel to the scene they were looking for. This allowed them to quickly reject the locations of the world that were unlikely to be the scene they were looking for. They found their hypotheses to be true: that the certain task which an observer performs on a very simple display can significantly alter the way that such a display is processed. In other words, when we are looking for something, we attentively process each individual item in our visual field, just not to the same extent.

The meme that I created above is a simplified version of the basic idea that neither top-down or bottom-up processing occurs on its own. Rather, the two occur simultaneously as parallel processing. The video is highlighting that it is not accurate to simply reduce processing to one type or the other. It is also pointing out that parallel processing is a very complex process, as described by the study above. This study showed that visual stimuli is not passively observed but actively processed in a parallel manner.

The evidence that is found in this study is compelling, but one issue with it is that the presented displays contained only two items and were not based on real-life objects and scenes. This would have been important to study because it would have allowed for a more direct application of the research.

Overall, I found the topic of parallel processing very interesting. It was hard to find recent research on it that was relevant, but when I found this research article discussing parallel processing in relation to visual processing, I was intrigued because we have been talking about visual processing in class. I thought that the research article was difficult to read but the findings were interesting because it was novel research that was conducted, rather than a replication study of information that we already know about parallel processing.

Buetti, S., Cronin, D. A., Madison, A. M., Wang, Z., & Lleras, A. (2016). Towards a better understanding of parallel visual processing in human vision: Evidence for exhaustive analysis of visual information. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145(6), 672-707.