Complexity effects in visuo-spatial working memory: Implications for the role of long-term memory
Several studies have shown that the capacity of visuo-spatial working memory is limited by complexity. Using a variant of the Corsi blocks task, this paper investigated the effect of complexity of the to-be-remembered path on visuo-spatial memory span. Redundancy was determined by three Gestalt principles: symmetry, repetition and continuation. Experiment 1 revealed an effect of path complexity. The subsequent experiments explored whether the superiority for recall of structured over complex paths can be attributed solely to the operation of visuo-spatial working memory, or whether it also reflects the use of long-term knowledge. Experiment 2 demonstrated that the effect of complexity remained, even when the mechanisms for visuo-spatial coding were removed by a secondary visuo-spatial task. In Experiments 3 and 4 subjects were trained in the recall of complex paths. This led to the creation of long-term memory representations for these paths, as shown by an improvement in their span, and a concomitant lack of transfer to new paths. Finally, Experiment 5 showed that one prior repetition of a complex path was sufficient to produce specific and long-term learning effects. These results point to the involvement of long-term memory processes in the temporary retention of visuo-spatial material for which representations exist in long-term memory. They also suggest that the effect of complexity may provide a tractable technique for investigating the mechanisms underlying the limits of visuo-spatial short-term storage.