The multi-component model of working memory posits different processes for phonological and visual working memory storage.

Working memory capacity can be measured in a variety of ways (see: How to reliably measure working memory capacity?), and we know that there is reliable individual variation on working memory capacity.

Is there a strong correlation of working memory capacity in different modalities within an individual? Put another way: If I have measured working memory capacity for an individual using a visual working memory task (like a Matrix span task), how reliably can I predict performance on a verbal working memory task for that individual?


2 Answers 2


How working memory breaks down, or even whether it is a valid construct at all, is still somewhat controversial. The evidence for domain-specific modalities is largely based on the (lack of otherwise expected) interference between them. Another line of evidence that could be used to validate this model is checking the correlations between them: A high correlation would argue for a domain-general working memory, while a low correlation would support domain-specific modalities. In practice, however, the value of examining correlations between working memory measures is confounded by a general capacity factor (eg, executive control), interaction with short-term memory, the possibility of any number of additional modalities (for example, visual vs. spatial), and the result of many years of assuming a unitary working memory construct resulting in a variety of measures that are validated against each other (ie, expected to correlate highly).

Nonetheless, just such a test was done by Alloway, Gathercole & Pickering (2006), who subjected over 700 primary school children to a battery of different working memory capacity measures. As expected, correlations between many of the measures were statistically significant, but importantly, not commensurate with either a simple domain-specific model, or a simple general model with WM/STM split. To answer your question, here is a table from the paper that summarizes some of the results (more detail here): enter image description here

As you can see, the correlations, while nearly all significant at p>.001, vary considerably. These results are consistent with similar studies that review several independent measures of working memory that nonetheless all tend to correlate well with cognitive factors such as general intelligence.

  • $\begingroup$ The correlations also will depend on the reliability of the test, e.g. how much does the score change each time you take it. There could be a domain general working memory and moderate correlations driven entirely by testing noise. If the correlations are lower than test/retest reliability, then that seems like some evidence for domain specificity. $\endgroup$
    – Josh
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 3:10

To add to Arnon's answer, modality-specific working memory capacity (WMC) does correlate within individuals, so in some cases, you could certainly predict one from the other. As long as dumb prediction is all you're interested in, why not?

The problem with making that prediction is that it's very difficult to interpret what it means in causal or practical terms. Recent findings suggest we can't just assume that the domain general contribution is equal across domains, as we've been doing, because the interference effects used to establish WMC subscales in the first place appear to actually be asymmetrical. A verbal WM load does decrease visual WM performance, but not vice versa (Morey et al., 2013). Predicting verbal WMC from visual WMC thus means something completely different from predicting visual WMC from verbal WMC! How to resolve this, or whether it can be resolved, to my knowledge remains an open question for multi-component WM research.

In summation, the relationship between modalities in the multi-component model is currently on shaky theoretical footing. If one measured working memory capacity for an individual using a visual working memory task (like a Matrix span task), one could semi-reliably predict performance on a verbal working memory task for that individual. Good luck figuring out what the result means, though, so maybe one shouldn't.



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