Public Release: 

New research data on the link between learning results and working memory

University of Helsinki

A research project on the Working Memory and Cognition has reached its conclusion. This three-year project has concentrated on basic research into the essence of memory and learning, and its results can be applied to such things as predicting learning difficulties or successes and understanding their related factors, which within working memory hinder or promote learning at an individual level.

The project was headed by Elisabet Service, a docent at the Department of Psychology at the University of Helsinki. Other members of the group were Jarmo Herkman, Virpi Kalakoski, Emilia Luotoniemi and Sini Maury, researchers from the Department of Psychology. The research is divided into two primary areas: the essence of language-related memory processes and the impact of expertise in working memory tasks concerning music.

Poor short-term memory reveals an ineffective language learning process

It has long been known that effective language learning is correlated with the efficient storing of linguistic material in short-term memory. Those who can repeat long series of numbers or multisyllabic nonsense words without making errors, are typically good at learning languages. Recent studies indicate that this is not a causal relationship. It would seem that a good short-term memory is not a prerequisite for long-term learning, rather, it is the case that both short-term and long-term memory tasks tap the same ability of the nervous system to create representations of sufficient quality to support the maintenance of several of them at once.

The project also studied those factors that result in the heaviest working memory loads, that is to say, lead to overlapping and interfering representations. This type of basic research in applicable in teaching. For example, when studying a foreign language, it is important to present material which reinforces the long-term representations of new sounds and sound clusters. By systematic teaching, one can also practice difficult things, such as the correct recognition of unstressed syllables. In this project, which has now reached its conclusion, these studies were carried out by Emilia Luotoniemi, Sini Maury and Elisabet Service.

Jarmo Herkman studied the relationship between the understanding of metaphorical expression and working memory. The key question in this field of research is whether or not the processing of metaphoric language differs from the processing of literal language. His results support the view that the understanding of symbolic language differs from that of literal language. Metaphoric language often puts greater stress on working memory and so is harder to process than literal language.

The group also collaborated with the Cognitive-Clinical Neuroscience Unit led by Professor John Connolly, as well as with Professor Kimmo Alho and researcher Anu Kujala of the Department of Psychology at the University of Helsinki, and Professor Riitta Salmelin and researcher Päivi Helenius of the Brain Research Unit at the Low Temperature Laboratory at Helsinki University of Technology.

Does an expert have a better memory than an amateur?

The project also studied the roles of concept formation in the information processing of an expert, one object of research being the processing of musical knowledge. Researcher Sini Maury studied the ability of musicians to compare separate intervals and melodies formed of several tones.

The ability to recognise a tone in an interval as belonging to a certain tone category can help to distinguish it from other tones. Intervals, whose critical tones belong to the same class, are more difficult to distinguish from each other than intervals, which contain tones belonging to different classes, when the acoustic differences between the tone pairs of intervals are equally large. This phenomenon is known as categorical perception. In her experiments, Sini Maury observed that the significance of categorical perception is more pronounced when the load on working memory in a sorting task grows, for example, when a tone interval is included in a four-tone melody. The interpretation of such a result can be that it is a memory phenomenon in which the representation of an established tone category is used to fill in an imperfect auditory memory trace. The same kind of mechanism can influence memory for linguistic stimuli. The words of an unknown language are difficult, when their sounds cannot be classified into categories familiar from one's mother tongue.

Virpi Kalakoski studied differences between the abilities of musicians and persons who did not have music as an active hobby to remember series of notes presented in succession on a computer screen. She developed a test paradigm, by which it is possible to follow the combining of stimuli into a pattern. Kalakoski's results show how expertise makes it possible to apparently bypass working memory limits, even when the memory items cannot be grouped into simple categories.


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Niina Haasola
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