Explaining semantic short-term memory deficits: evidence for the critical role of semantic control

Paul Hoffman, Elizabeth Jefferies, Matthew A. Lambon Ralph

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Patients with apparently selective short-term memory (STM) deficits for semantic information have played an important role in developing multi-store theories of STM and challenge the idea that verbal STM is supported by maintaining activation in the language system. We propose that semantic STM deficits are not as selective as previously thought and can occur as a result of mild disruption to semantic control processes, i.e., mechanisms that bias semantic processing towards task-relevant aspects of knowledge and away from irrelevant information. We tested three semantic STM patients with tasks that tapped four aspects of semantic control: (i) resolving ambiguity between word meanings, (ii) sensitivity to cues, (iii) ignoring irrelevant information and (iv) detecting weak semantic associations. All were impaired in conditions requiring more semantic control, irrespective of the STM demands of the task, suggesting a mild, but task-general, deficit in regulating semantic knowledge. This mild deficit has a disproportionate effect on STM tasks because they have high intrinsic control demands: in STM tasks, control is required to keep information active when it is no longer available in the environment and to manage competition between items held in memory simultaneously. By re-interpreting the core deficit in semantic STM patients in this way, we are able to explain their apparently selective impairment without the need for a specialised STM store. Instead, we argue that semantic STM patients occupy the mildest end of spectrum of semantic control disorders. (C) 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)368-381
Number of pages14
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2011

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