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Posted 10.22.04

Memory Differences Can Affect Attention Focus

Distractions Hurt Memory Focus for Some People, Research has Implications for ADHD

COLUMBIA, Mo. - In today's busy and fast-paced world, people often multitask to get work done. However, a University of Missouri-Columbia researcher has found that reducing unrelated information, known as interference, can lead to quicker and more accurate memory recall for some individuals. The results of this study could contribute to human attention and memory theories, with implications for developmental problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

"If it were the case that a stimulus always leads to just one response, we could easily remember things," said researcher Michael Bunting, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychological Sciences. "However, in today's world, we're bombarded by all kinds of phenomena, and we have to deal with all these stimuli, which fight for our attention."

In experiments with reduced interference, people with low working memory levels responded more quickly and accurately on memory recall exercises than they did in experiments with increased interference. Working memory is defined as the small amount of memory a person keeps highly accessible while engaged in a task. With increased interference, people with low working memory levels performed with less speed and accuracy than those with high working memory levels. Andrew Conway, a doctoral student at Princeton University, and Rich Heitz, a graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, collaborated with Bunting.

In his study, Bunting gave each subject a list of items to remember, such as: "The teacher is in the boat. The teacher is in the house. The teacher is in the car. The lawyer is in the train. The lawyer is in the boat." Bunting then presented sentences on a computer based on the previous items and asked whether they were true or false. Repetition of words such as "teacher" and "lawyer" was a problem for people with low working memory capacity, who were slower responding and had more incorrect answers.

"People with more working memory tend to do a better job of ignoring the overlapping and extraneous connections. They remain more focused on relevant responses," Bunting said.

Bunting concluded that working memory levels are affected by attentional control, people's ability to keep their attention focused on a particular item. The results might explain differences in general intelligence, which is related to a person's working memory capacity and is used in classic intelligence and ability tests, Bunting said. His results will be published in the Journal of Memory and Language later this year.

"This research is informing us and leading us to better theories of human attention and memory," Bunting said. "These theories are important for people that do developmental work and for those treating patients with developmental problems and ADHD."

Bunting's research is part of the Missouri Rehabilitation Research Training Program, a postdoctoral program funded by the National Institutes of Health. Since 1994, MU has received more than $1.5 million for the program along with 18 postdoctoral fellows, 10 predoctoral fellows and three summer medical students.


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