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Front Hum Neurosci. 2014 Jan 24;8:6. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00006. eCollection 2014.

Primacy and recency effects as indices of the focus of attention.

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Department of Psychology, Temple University, Philadelphia PA, USA.
Department of Psychology, Princeton University, Princeton NJ, USA.


Ongoing debate surrounds the capacity and characteristics of the focus of attention. The present study investigates whether a pattern of larger recency effects and smaller primacy effects reported in previous working memory studies is specific to task conditions used in those studies, or generalizes across manipulations of task-demand. Two experiments varied task-demands by requiring participants to remember lists of letters and to then respond to a subsequent two-item probe by indicating either the item that was presented later in the list (judgment of recency) or the item was presented earlier (judgment of primacy). Analyses tested the prediction that a WM task emphasizing later items in a list (judgment of recency) would encourage exaggerated recency effects and attenuated primacy effects, while a task emphasizing earlier items (judgment of primacy) would encourage exaggerated primacy effects and attenuated recency effects. Behavioral results from two experiments confirmed this prediction. In contrast to past studies, fMRI contrasts revealed no brain regions where activity was significantly altered by the presence of recency items in the probe, for either task condition. However, presence of the primacy item in the probe significantly influenced activity in frontal lobe brain regions linked to active maintenance, but the location and direction of activation changes varied as a function of task instructions. In sum, two experiments demonstrate that the behavioral and neural signatures of WM, specifically related to primacy and recency effects, are dependent on task-demands. Findings are discussed as they inform models of the structure and capacity of WM.


focus of attention; medial temporal lobe; phonological rehearsal; primacy and recency effects; working memory

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