Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
The very limited capacity of short-term or working memory is one of the most prominent features of human cognition. Most studies have stressed delimiting the upper bounds of this memory in memorization tasks rather than the performance of everyday tasks. We designed a series of experiments to test the use of short-term memory in the course of a natural hand-eye task where subjects have the freedom to choose their own task parameters. In this case subjects choose not to operate at the maximum capacity of short-term memory but instead seek to minimize its use. In particular, reducing the instantaneous memory required to perform the task can be done by serializing the task with eye movements. These eye movements allow subjects to postpone the gathering of task-relevant information until just before it is required. The reluctance to use short-term memory can be explained if such memory is expensive to use with respect to the cost of the serializing strategy.