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J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 1986 Jul;12(3):419-25.

Short-term memory capacity: magic number or magic spell?


Previous experiments have found that memory span is greater for items that can be pronounced more quickly. For a variety of materials the span equals the number of items that can be pronounced in about 1.5 s, presumably the duration of the verbal trace. This suggests a model for immediate recall: The probability of correctly recalling a list equals the probability that the time to recite the list is less than the variable duration of the trace. Recall probability for lists of various lengths was determined for six materials. Later, subjects read the lists aloud. The standard normal deviates corresponding to probability of correct recall were linear in pronunciation time. Evidently, over subjects, a normal distribution is a reasonable approximation of the distribution of the trace duration. The mean and variance of the trace duration were estimated. The mean (1.88 s) agrees well with previous estimates, and the model accounts for 95% of the variance in immediate recall.

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