Effects of executive control on memory integration and inference in adults

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2021

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Expanding knowledge in the face of associated and potentially competitive information depends on memory integration. Prior research shows evidence of memory integration in associative learning tasks, which is often correlated with prefrontal activation. While prefrontal regions are implicated in executive control, there’s little evidence of the causal role of executive control on integration. In the present research, adults (N=12) completed a well-established associative learning task in which they learned a series of character-object AB pairs followed by overlapping object-object BC pairs. Following learning, integration of the overlapping pairs was assessed through inference task performance, in which they were tested for knowledge of the novel AC pairs. Critically, half of the overlapping BC pairs were learned while completing a divided attention task in which participants were asked to count simultaneously presented sounds, whereas the other half of BC pairs were incidentally encoded as in prior research, thus serving as a within-participant baseline performance comparison. The divided attention manipulation was designed to engage executive control processes, thus preventing utilization of such processes for additional tasks, namely for formation of the relation between AB and BC pairs online during overlapping learning. Retrieval of direct pairs learned in the divided attention condition was worse compared to pairs in the control condition, suggesting that the manipulation impaired attentional resources. Moreover, adults demonstrated decreased inference accuracy and increased response times for AC items learned under the divided attention condition relative to pairs learned in the control condition, even when direct AB and BC memory was controlled. These results demonstrate how targeting executive processes results in decreased integration, thus providing direct evidence for the role of executive control in flexible memory integration.

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