Sub-processes of working memory in the N-back task: an investigation using ERPs

Author(s): Chen YN, Mitra S, Schlaghecken F


Objective:The N-back task is frequently used in working memory studies. N-parameters allow experimental psychologists to analyze the sub-processes of N-back tasks in addition to general processing. However, previous imaging studies have not closely scrutinized these sub-processes. In the current study, three sub-processes in the N-back task were proposed using a logical task analysis: matching, replacement and shift. Domain-specific lateralization in spatial and verbal working memory was investigated in terms of this model.

Methods:This model was tested with two ERP experiments during N-back tasks, one conceptual (top-down) and one data-driven (bottom-up).

Results:Domain-specific lateralization was observed as predicted in the shift sub-process of the conceptual task and in the replacement sub-process of the data-driven task. Match-specific lateralization was also found.

Conclusions:The results support our three-sub-process model of the N-back task and our hypothesis that replacement is a data-driven process with a posterior locus whereas shift is a more conceptual process with a more frontal locus.

Significance:The proposed model correctly predicted ERP patterns in conceptual and data-driven N-back tasks and is potentially useful in understanding the neurophysiologic basis of N-back task performance. The similarity between match- and domain-specific lateralization in N-back tasks raised several issues for further investigation.

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