Welcome to the WoMAAC project.

Esrc_logoRCUK Reference Number: ES/N010728/1


The human ability to keep track of ongoing thoughts, plans, actions, current tasks, and changes around us is essential for everyday living. This ability is known as working memory, a system of the brain that allows us to focus on what we are doing, avoid distractions, switch from one task to another, solve problems, navigate around a shopping centre or city, drive on a busy motorway, prepare a meal, or do several things at once such as walking and talking. However, there are vigorous debates among scientists about what limits our working memory ability, and how those limits change as people move through middle age and into their older years. Sometimes such debates can lead to major new insights, but often researchers work with like minded people rather than with people who have opposing views. This can lead to an endless cycle of debate that hampers the genuine advance of understanding, and can result in ineffective use of limited research resources, effort and time.

The investigators are international leaders of three different scientific theories and approaches to understanding the important human cognitive ability of working memory. The proposal involves the rare occurrence of co-investigators who hold different views, agreeing to work together on a project that will directly investigate why their independent research programmes have previously generated different results with different implications for understanding the effects of age on cognition. Although holding differing scientific views we have successfully cooperated in editing a journal issue and organising scientific meetings, as well as agreeing to work together to help advance understanding of what changes in the cognitive ability of us all as we age, thereby allowing a solid basis for the collaboration.

From previous research results:

Theory 1 assumes (a) if working memory is full to capacity with e.g. words, then it will be impossible to make decisions or to remember visual patterns as well (b) there is one general working memory ability that declines across adult age.

Theory 2 assumes (a) working memory performance depends on how long attention is focused on memory or on decision making (b) mental rehearsal of words does not require attention (c) mental rehearsal and attention might each decline at different rates across adult age.

Theory 3 assumes (a) even healthy older people can cope with holding words and visual patterns in working memory while making quick and accurate decisions (b) people can have good memories without being quick decision makers and vice versa (c) there are several different working memory abilities and these decline at different rates across adulthood with some abilities relatively intact in old age

The research involves 17 experiments to examine how healthy adult volunteers aged 18-75 perform when they are asked to remember words or visual patterns at the limits of their working memory capacity, and are asked to make simple rapid decisions (such as whether a string of letters is a word or not, or taps into their general knowledge of the world). The experiments will look at how people cope with focusing on the memory task or on the decision task, or are asked to do both at the same time. Two of the experiments will involve large numbers of people performing a range of tests to see if, e.g. people who are good at memory tests are also quick and accurate on decisions, or good at memory and making decisions at the same time. Each theory makes different predictions for the results of our planned experiments. The planned research has significant potential for new theoretical developments, and for major advances in the understanding of this key human ability across the adult lifespan. Crucially, it will reveal whether all of working memory declines with age or whether some aspects remain largely intact, with important implications for design of technology for older users, and for lifelong education and training.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit and how?

This is a basic scientific research project and the major immediate impact will be on academic users with new sets of empirical data and new theory development and understanding of human working memory across the adult lifespan, driven by major research leaders associated currently with very different theoretical perspectives. The major non-academic impact during the project will be public engagement across at least three countries – UK, Switzerland and the USA, and the benefit to society will be an increase in public understanding of working memory and its importance in everyday life and how it changes with age. This will be achieved by use of press releases and regular project updates on a project website, creation of an animated film, participation by 2000 members of the general public in experiments for the research, experiments on the project website for people to test their own working memory at home worldwide via the internet, talks by the PI and co-investigators to general practitioners, technology interface designers, University of the Third Age (interest courses targeted at older people), the Edinburgh Science Festival and in museums and science exhibitions, stake holder groups, and policy makers. The PI, and Co-Is Cowan and Naveh-Benjamin have previously used this approach and the PI’s previous work in collaboration with the BBC involving 500,000 people appears on the RCUK list of example case studies for public engagement.

The medium and long-term impact of the research beyond academia will involve combining new research outcomes from the project with previous, ongoing and future basic and applied research worldwide by the co-investigators and others, rather than from this project on its own. In this context, the results of the proposed project will have important practical implications for providing support to older people to enable them to continue to contribute to society and in the workplace, and to deal with increasingly complex technologies. There is a rapidly increasing reliance on the web to access services, goods, and health care, and for formal transactions such as tax returns or registering to vote, as well as in many occupations. In addition to visual problems and some difficulties in use of a mouse and keyboard by older people, navigating web pages can place high demands on working memory (e.g. Diaz-Bossini & Moreno, 2014; http://www.nngroup.com/articles/usability-for-senior-citizens). This can exclude many older people, and cause difficulties for those who try to engage with the technology. Despite this, the current version of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) Accessibility Guidelines and related guidelines from the US National Institute of Aging cover memory issues and related cognitive limitations very superficially. A well supported theory and understanding of working memory or its capacity limitations is crucial for developing evidence-based, actionable design guidelines that make the Internet more accessible for older people. PI Logie (e.g. Law et al., 2005; McKinlay et al., 2010; Wolters et al, 2009; in press) has addressed interface design issues in work funded by previous grants from ESRC, EPSRC, and in an ongoing EU FP7 project (end January 2016). He plans to capitalise on links with commercial web designers in the current EU project and seek separate follow on funding to start in year 2 of the proposed ESRC project to use advances in understanding of working memory from the latter in the separate planned project to create design guidelines for effective and inclusive web sites that are based on empirically derived cognitive theory.