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What experiments would demonstrate "upper limits of augmented working memory?"

by Raemon1 min read15th Aug 20197 comments



Wikipedia has this discussion of working-memory-as-ability-to-discern-relationships-simultaneously:

Other have argued that working memory capacity is better characterized as "the ability to mentally form relations between elements, or to grasp relations in given information. This idea has been advanced by Halford, who illustrated it by our limited ability to understand statistical interactions between variables.[34]"
These authors asked people to compare written statements about the relations between several variables to graphs illustrating the same or a different relation, as in the following sentence:
"If the cake is from France, then it has more sugar if it is made with chocolate than if it is made with cream, but if the cake is from Italy, then it has more sugar if it is made with cream than if it is made of chocolate".
This statement describes a relation between three variables (country, ingredient, and amount of sugar), which is the maximum most individuals can understand. The capacity limit apparent here is obviously not a memory limit (all relevant information can be seen continuously) but a limit to how many relationships are discerned simultaneously.

A common argument I've heard is that large monitors, notebooks, whiteboards, etc, are important tools to expand working memory.

I notice I'm not 100% sure what this means – in particular in the context of "discerning relationships simultaneously."

In this blogpost on distributed teams , Elizabeth plots out her model of worker productivity, which looks like this:

I look at any chunk of that, and it makes sense.

If I were to try to summarize the whole thing without looking at the reference drawing, I would definitely not be able to (without a lot of memorization and/or thinking about the model to get it deeply entangled within myself)

If I have the model right in front of me, I still can't really explain it, it's too complicated.

Diagrams help – I'm pretty sure I could track more moving parts with a diagram than without a diagram. But how much do they help? And what does that mean?

I'm interested in this as part of a general hypothesis that working-memory might be a key bottleneck on intellectual progress. It seems like you should be able to formalize the limit of how many relationships people can reason about at once, and how much visual aids and other working-memory augmentation help. But I'm not quite sure what testing it would mean.

If I try to memorize a phone number with no visual aids, it's obvious to check how many digits I can remember. If I have a visual aid, it's easy - just read off the page. But when it comes to discerning relationships, just reading off the page "what inputs plug into what" isn't really the question.

I'm interested in:

  • generally getting deconfused about this topic
  • whether there's any science that tries actually answering this question
  • what science could theoretically try answering this question if it hasn't been done yet.


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