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Inside CSULB
Vol 57 No. 13 : June 30, 2005
Vol 57 No. 13 | June 30, 2005

Chiappe Discusses Our Working Memory

Psychology's Dan Chiappe never forgets that memory is hard work.

Working memory, the system for conscious information processing, is divided into storage and executive functions, explains the Huntington Beach resident and native of Peru who joined the university in 2001. The storage mechanism holds information temporarily and the executive component controls what information is activated from long-term memory and put into the storage mechanism.

One of the most important uses of the executive functions is in the management of interference. "It is often the case that to do one thing, you must screen out another," he said. "There are other things going on at the same time that compete for our attention. Sometimes those things have to be inhibited. Executive functions activate relevant representations that inhibit potential distractions."

One way to measure working memory's executive function is with the Stroop Interference Task, where participants are asked to name the color of the ink in which a word is printed but which describes another color. "For instance, you look at the word 'red' but it is printed in blue," he said. "Participants must look at this word and say 'blue.' The reading response is automatic but the participant must inhibit that."

The executive functions are also crucial to many higher-level reasoning tasks. This is because these tasks involve "de-contextualization." To solve many problems, we must inhibit the natural human tendency to "contextualize" them. "There are automatic mechanisms in the brain that add a lot of information to a problem we try to solve," he said. "Quite often, we have to inhibit those representations to solve a problem effectively and in a novel way."

One example of this is judging whether an argument is logically valid even though the premises and conclusion are false. "Contextualization tells you the premises are false. You have to 'de-contextualize', or abstract these representations from your knowledge base. You have to look at them in an abstract way and judge, if the premise were true would the conclusion also have to be true? This process of de-contextualization underlies many intelligence tests," he said.

De-contextualization is also involved in another process Chiappe studies – metaphorical cognition. Metaphor is a cognitive tool that provides the ability to be flexible in the way we represent things.

"Through metaphor, we can liken the properties of sound to a water-wave, the workings of the mind to a digital computer, and the process of evolution to a lottery. We can 're-represent' things. We can take information out of one domain and apply it in a completely different domain," he said. Humanity evolved this ability to solve novel problems. "We have plenty of mechanisms specialized to solve recurrent problems," he said. "But every once in a while, we must solve novel problems. Metaphor, as a way of representing things in novel ways, is a tool that allows us to be flexible in solving life problems. Metaphor involves the executive functions of activation and inhibition. When you say, 'rumors are weeds,’ you must inhibit the most salient meaning of weeds as plants to apply this concept to rumors. You must activate the secondary meaning of weeds."

For an expert on memory, Chiappe has little trust in his own and makes sure he writes down every idea. "In the 21st century, we're surrounded by technological artifacts whose function is that of external storage systems for information. We have them because memory is incredibly unreliable," he said. "Books and computers are ways to offload information storage. We can’t store it all in our memory. Writing it down helps deal with the limitations of working memory. When it is a matter of keeping information active in the face of interference, the best way to deal with that is to write down the important stuff. That way, you don’t have to worry about interference."

Chiappe received his B.S., M.A. and Ph.D. (in 1997) from the University of Toronto before joining SUNY Fredonia as a visiting assistant professor. 

Despite technological advances in memory, 21st century humans are as forgetful as their ancestors.

"We have developed all these information-storing devices like computers and Palm Pilots," he said. "But I agree with critics who have referred to them as diamond-studded shovels. They are remarkable tools but they are still at the level of a shovel in terms of sophistication and usability. We need to develop more user-friendly ways of accessing and storing information. I rarely use my Palm Pilot because inputting the information is a pain in the neck."

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