An Oscillatory Short-Term Memory Buffer Model Can Account for Data on the Sternberg Task
A limited number (7 ± 2) of items can be held in human short-term memory (STM). We have previously suggested that observed dual (theta and gamma) oscillations could underlie a multiplexing mechanism that enables a single network to actively store up to seven memories. Here we have asked whether models of this kind can account for the data on the Sternberg task, the most quantitative measurements of memory search available. We have found several variants of the oscillatory search model that account for the quantitative dependence of the reaction time distribution on the number of items (S) held in STM. The models differ on the issues of (1) whether theta frequency varies with S and (2) whether the phase of ongoing oscillations is reset by the probe. Using these models the frequencies of dual oscillations can be derived from psychophysical data. The derived values (fθ = 6–10 Hz ; fγ = 45–60 Hz) are in reasonable agreement with experimental values. The exhaustive nature of the serial search that has been inferred from psychophysical measurements can be plausibly explained by these oscillatory models. One argument against exhaustive serial search has been the existence of serial position effects. We find that these effects can be explained by short-term repetition priming in the context of serial scanning models. Our results strengthen the case for serial processing and point to experiments that discriminate between variants of the serial scanning process.