Filtering external and internal distraction, and implications for working memory capacity

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Working Memory (WM), the ability to hold information in mind for a short time, varies between individuals and is vital for daily functioning. Working Memory Capacity (WMC), the amount of information that can be held in WM, is predicted by an individual’s ability to ignore External Distraction (ED); task-irrelevant stimuli occurring during a WM task. Previous research also demonstrates a strong link between Internal Distraction (ID), such as task-irrelevant thoughts, and reduced WMC, although there is controversy over whether individuals with higher WMC are better able to ignore ID, have reduced ID, or are better able to redirect attention to task-related thoughts. Meditation is associated with reduced ID and improved WMC. However, the relationship between ID and ED-filtering appears to not yet have been investigated. At present, it is unknown whether they involve common filtering mechanisms, or whether they interact to affect WM.

The proposed work will test three main hypotheses:

1) In line with previous literature, meditation will reduce ID and improve WMC.
2) Individual differences in ID and ED-filtering ability and WMC will correlate, suggesting shared distractor-filtering mechanisms for ID and ED, which contribute to shaping WMC.
3) In line with there being common filtering mechanisms for ID and ED, ID and ED will interact - when ID is reduced, ED-filtering will improve, which would represent a potential basis for previous findings linking WMC with ED-filtering ability.


The proposed research will be delivered online using Prolific and a within-subjects design, with each participant completing two sessions. In both sessions a WM task will be completed (remembering the positions of red circles and ignoring yellow circles (i.e., ED)). In one session, participants will first complete a 10-minute guided Mindfulness Meditation (MM) to reduce the effects of ID. WMC will be measured in each condition, and by comparing performance with and without each type of distraction, the following will be estimated for each participant:

1) ED-filtering ability,
2) ID-filtering ability,
3) WMC with no/minimal distraction.

After each WMC task, participants will be asked to complete a short questionnaire, rating various aspects of ID using a Likert scale, to estimate levels of ID for each condition. This will be compared with the measure of ID-filtering ability obtained from WMC estimates. Having established an effect of MM on ID and compared individual differences in ED and ID-filtering ability, the interaction between ED and ID will be interrogated and implications for WMC examined.

The proposed research aims to provide novel insight into ID, ED and WMC. Distractor-filtering and WMC are both affected by healthy ageing, with implications for quality of life (QL). Furthermore, anxiety disorders are associated with high levels of ID within their symptomology, also negatively affecting QL and WMC. Improved understanding of distractor–filtering and its association with WMC, could contribute to earlier recognition of anxiety disorders/cognitive impairment and the development of scientifically-informed interventions to improve QL and reduce the economic burden associated with debilitating mental health/cognitive decline.

In the second summer, I would like to volunteer in this field to improve quality of life.

Sarah Heptinstall

BSc Psychology Student, University of York

I am a first year psychology undergraduate and I love the mind in all it's complexity. I am a mother of 3 children, ranging in age from 6 to 15. I was self-employed, successfully and solely running a barber shop for 6 years prior to starting university. I volunteer with HEY MIND as a peer support worker usually, for either teens or adults, but I am taking a break at present, in order to volunteer with SEED (an eating disorder charity) as an email buddy for a lady with anorexia.

My upcoming research revolves around linking memory with internal experience: we think distractions like mind-wandering and intrusive thoughts will negatively affect how much we can remember!

I am very much looking forward to getting started :)