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 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. In this talk, I will describe the WoMAAC project, funded by the ESRC, involving co-investigators from three different countries who hold respectively three contrasting theoretical views about working memory but who have agreed to work together on a project that directly investigates why their independent research programmes have previously generated different results, with different implications for understanding the effects of age on cognition. Through this 'adversarial collaboration' we aim to help advance understanding of what changes in the cognitive ability of us all as we age, rather than to foster debates that are never resolved. The differential predictions and methods for all of our experiments were pre-registered on the Open Science Framework.
As I will illustrate in the talk, after three years of this four year project, and multiple experiments, it is clear that none of the three theories can account for all of the data. In this fourth, and final year of the project, the theories are changing to become more similar, revealing that differences may be more apparent than real, and working towards our goal of developing a more integrated view that helps advance the science while recognising the flexibility of human cognition.
More details about the project and a current, online experiment in which all are invited to participate, are available at http://womaac.psy.ed.ac.uk/