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The special role of item–context associations in the direct-access region of working memory

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The three-embedded-component model of working memory (WM) distinguishes three representational states corresponding to three WM regions: activated long-term memory, direct-access region (DAR), and focus of attention. Recent neuroimaging research has revealed that access to the DAR is associated with enhanced hippocampal activity. Because the hippocampus mediates the encoding and retrieval of item–context associations, it has been suggested that this hippocampal activation is a consequence of the fact that item–context associations are particularly strong and accessible in the DAR. This study provides behavioral evidence for this view using an item-recognition task to assess the effect of non-intentional encoding and maintenance of item–location associations across WM regions. Five pictures of human faces were sequentially presented in different screen locations followed by a recognition probe. Visual cues immediately preceding the probe indicated the location thereof. When probe stimuli appeared in the same location that they had been presented within the memory set, the presentation of the cue was expected to elicit the activation of the corresponding WM representation through the just-established item–location association, resulting in faster recognition. Results showed this same-location effect, but only for items that, according to their serial position within the memory set, were held in the DAR.

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(calculated according to Masson and Loftus, 2003)

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(calculated according to Masson and Loftus, 2003)

Fig. 4

(calculated according to Masson and Loftus, 2003)


  1. 1.

    STM can be conceived as the expression of the WM system in situations in which performance does not significantly depend on the executive control mechanisms that generally play a decisive role in more prototypical WM tasks. From this perspective, WM represents a wider and more inclusive concept and that is why I will use this term throughout the paper. In any case, it is important to note that this study does not focus on the attentional mechanisms of executive control that makes WM different from STM, but on the memory component of WM, what Oberauer (2009) calls declarative WM.

  2. 2.

    I thank an anonymous reviewer for this observation.

  3. 3.

    Although this automatic, familiarity-based account seems plausible, alternative explanations cannot be ruled out. For example, participants could have strategically used item–location information to reduce the size of the memory search set in the same-location condition, whereas search-set size in the different-location condition was always five (I thank an anonymous reviewer for pointing out this possibility). This would lead to faster RTs in the same-location condition when item–location information was available. Importantly, the main conclusion from this view would remain the same because results would reveal that item–location information was selectively available for DAR items.


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Correspondence to Guillermo Campoy.

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This study was funded by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (Project PSI2014-53427-P) and by the Agency for Science and Technology in the Region of Murcia (Seneca Foundation; project 19267/PI/14).

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The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.

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All procedures performed were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

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Campoy, G. The special role of item–context associations in the direct-access region of working memory. Psychological Research 81, 982–989 (2017).

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  • Serial Position
  • Work Memory
  • Location Association
  • Amnesic Patient
  • Hippocampal Activation