No Recovery of Memory When Cognitive Load Is Decreased

Timothy J Ricker, Evie Vergauwe, Garrett A Hinrichs, Christopher L Blume, Nelson Cowan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


There is substantial debate in the field of short-term memory (STM) as to whether the process of active maintenance occurs through memory-trace reactivation or repair. A key difference between these 2 potential mechanisms is that a repair mechanism should lead to recovery of forgotten information. The ability to recover forgotten memories would be a panacea for STM and if possible, would warrant much future research. We examine the topic of STM recovery by varying the cognitive load of a secondary task and duration of retention of word pairs. In our key manipulation, we lighten the cognitive load partway through the retention interval, resulting in an easier task during the later portion of retention and more time for active maintenance processes to take place. Although the natural prediction arising from a repair mechanism is that memory accuracy should increase after transitioning to an easier load, we find that accuracy decreases or levels off at this point. We see this pattern across 3 experiments and can only conclude that the panacea of STM recovery does not exist. Implications for the debate over memory maintenance mechanisms are discussed. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2014 APA, all rights reserved).

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition
Publication statusPublished - 24 Nov 2014


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