Memory & Cognition

, Volume 46, Issue 3, pp 426–437 | Cite as

Keeping it together: Semantic coherence stabilizes phonological sequences in short-term memory

  • Nicola Savill
  • Rachel Ellis
  • Emma Brooke
  • Tiffany Koa
  • Suzie Ferguson
  • Elena Rojas-Rodriguez
  • Dominic Arnold
  • Jonathan Smallwood
  • Elizabeth Jefferies


Our ability to hold a sequence of speech sounds in mind, in the correct configuration, supports many aspects of communication, but the contribution of conceptual information to this basic phonological capacity remains controversial. Previous research has shown modest and inconsistent benefits of meaning on phonological stability in short-term memory, but these studies were based on sets of unrelated words. Using a novel design, we examined the immediate recall of sentence-like sequences with coherent meaning, alongside both standard word lists and mixed lists containing words and nonwords. We found, and replicated, substantial effects of coherent meaning on phoneme-level accuracy: The phonemes of both words and nonwords within conceptually coherent sequences were more likely to be produced together and in the correct order. Since nonwords do not exist as items in long-term memory, the semantic enhancement of phoneme-level recall for both item types cannot be explained by a lexically based item reconstruction process employed at the point of retrieval (“redintegration”). Instead, our data show, for naturalistic input, that when meaning emerges from the combination of words, the phonological traces that support language are reinforced by a semantic-binding process that has been largely overlooked by past short-term memory research.


Meaning Phonological binding Verbal short-term memory Semantic coherence Speech 


Supplementary material

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ESM 1 (DOCX 187 kb)


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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Psychological & Social SciencesYork St John UniversityYorkUK
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of YorkYorkUK

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