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Developmental Pattern of Digit Span

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Developmental Pattern of Digit Span

Could you beat a five-year-old in a simple memorisation task? Can you get better at remembering the names of people that just introduced themselves to you over the years? Our short-term memory changes across our lifespan. Younger children seem to perform worse on memory tasks, but their performance improves rapidly with age.

What is the digit span test used for in psychology?

So how can we investigate short-term memory across ages? This is a task Sebastián and Hernández-Gil (2012) sought to tackle in their study on the digit span and the development of the phonological loop. Before we cover the developmental pattern of digit span study, let's take a look at the history of the digit span in psychology.

The digit span test has been used in memory research since the nineteenth century. But, when the Working Memory Model was introduced, we could identify what component of memory it specifically measured/used.

Developmental Pattern of Digit Span brain strength digit span memory StudySmarterBrain strength training, flaticon.com/Freepik

Development of the digit span test

The first researcher to study memory experimentally was Herman Ebbinghaus. In the nineteenth century, he conducted hundreds of experiments on himself to investigate the mechanisms of learning and forgetting. Ebbinghaus recorded how many nonsense syllables he was able to memorise quickly. Other researchers adapted the nonsense syllable span procedure, which evolved into the digit pan test, similar to the one we use in research today.

Joseph Jacobs (1887) was one of the first to investigate the number of items short-term memory can store using the digit span test.

  • Jacobs presented participants with sequences of digits that were increasing in length up to a point when the sequence was too long for the participant to recall.
  • According to his experiments, adults could recall sequences of, on average, 9.3 items.

The digit span test in memory research

The digit span test is used to test the capacity of short-term memory, specifically the phonological loop.

  • The experimenter presents a sequence of digits to a participant.
  • If a participant can successfully repeat a sequence of four digits back, the experimenter will present them with a longer five-digit sequence.
  • The experimenter will present longer sequences until the participant can no longer accurately recall the sequence.

Digit span is a measure of how many digits can be held in short-term memory. A typical adult can hold 7 (+/- 2) digits. Digit span is associated with the phonological loop component of short-term memory, which holds speech-based information.

Short-term memory is a temporary memory store that holds information after it is presented. Short term memory has a limited capacity; it can only store a few items at a time. Here, an item refers to a meaningful chunk of information.

The Guinness record for recalling the number of digits for the value of 'pi' is 70000! Since people can typically recall up to 9 digits, how is it possible that some can remember thousands of them? Learning the sequence of 'pi' involves extensive rehearsal and allows for storing the items in long-term memory. Contrary to short-term memory, long-term memory has an unlimited capacity (at least, that's what we think anyway).

Digit span and the Baddeley and Hitch (1974): Working Memory Model

According to Baddeley and Hitch's (1974) Working Memory Model, the short-term memory store consists of the central executive, visuospatial sketchpad, and phonological loop.

  • The central executive is responsible for allocating attention to other components and performing cognitive tasks like decision making and problem-solving.

  • The visuospatial sketchpad is the inner eye of the system; it stores visual and spatial information.

  • The phonological loop is the inner ear; it is responsible for holding and reactivating verbal information using inner speech.

Developmental Pattern of Digit Span working memory model StudySmarterWorkingMemoryModel, StudySmarter Originals

What is the developmental pattern of digit span in psychology?

Short-term memory changes throughout our life. The digit span task allows us to measure and compare these changes. Sebastián and Hernández-Gil's (2012): Developmental pattern of digit span investigated the effect age has on the development of the phonological loop, referencing the Working Memory Model.

The developmental pattern of digit span refers to the changes in how many items we can store in short-term memory as we grow up. Digit span tells us about the development of the phonological loop. In early childhood, we observe lower digit spans, that increase throughout adolescence and decrease with old age.

Sebastián and Hernández-Gil (2012): Developmental pattern of digit span theory

Digit span should increase with age as children learn to process information faster. Moreover, around the age of six, children begin to use rehearsal to refresh the information stored in short-term memory. Children start to rehearse using the inner voice component of the phonological loop. This prevents forgetting of items and improves their digit span.

Sebastián and Hernández-Gil (2012) aimed to investigate patterns of phonological loop development across the ages of 5 to 17. Researchers administered the digit span test to 570 Spanish children without any hearing, reading, or writing impairments. The digit span test was used to see how children’s ability to hold information in short-term memory changes with age and to compare this data with previous studies conducted in the UK.

The results demonstrated a continued increase in digit span across ages, suggesting that working memory develops until the age of 17.

Developmental pattern of digit span Sebastián and Hernández-Gil StudySmarterDevelopmental pattern of digit span based on Sebastián and Hernández-Gil (2012), StudySmarter Originals

The effects of age on short-term memory

Old age appears to affect working memory significantly. Comparisons of the Sebastián and Hernández-Gil data with earlier studies on the elderly showed that healthy elderly participants have a digit span similar to a seven-year-old. Older people with conditions like dementia have only slightly lower digit spans, corresponding to a typical six-year-old.

Generalisability of Sebastián and Hernández-Gil (2012)

Previous English developmental research showed that digit span increases in children up until the age of 15, after which it remains constant. At 15, the Anglo-Saxon participants acquired adult levels of short-term memory capacity. English studies also demonstrated generally higher digit spans for children. One explanation of these results is the length of words for Spanish digits, which tend to be longer than words for English digits.

Longer words can’t be rehearsed as many times as shorter words using inner speech. The difference in digit span only appeared after the age of six, when children start to use inner speech to rehearse information, supporting the word length explanation for the differences. Overall, we can see that language used can affect the generalisability of digit span research findings.

Evaluation of Sebastián and Hernández-Gil (2012)

Some other evaluation points of Sebastián and Hernández-Gil (2012) to consider are:

  • The Sebastián and Hernández-Gil study used a standardised procedure, making their study easy to replicate, and increasing the reliability of the study.
  • They recruited a large, representative sample and excluded participants with cognitive impairments that could impact the results. The results for the Spanish study are generalisable to the Spanish population, considering the large sample size (570).
  • The task was completed at school, during the breaks, which on the one hand, is a familiar environment for children, but on the other, allows for certain disruptions like loud noises.
  • The task itself could be criticised as being artificial, suggesting low task validity; we don’t usually use our short-term memory to recall sequences of numbers in real life. However, using the digit span tasks allowed researchers to make comparisons to data from English studies.

Developmental Pattern of Digit Span - Key takeaways

  • Digit span is a measure of how many items we can hold in the phonological loop component of short-term memory.

  • A typical adult can hold 7 (+/- 2) digits in their short-term memory.

  • Young children have a smaller working memory capacity, which increases until adolescence and decreases with old age. This pattern appears to be universal.

  • Sebastián and Hernández-Gil (2012) found that Spanish children demonstrate slightly lower digit spans compared to English children. One explanation for this phenomenon is the word length of Spanish digits.

  • Overall, the results of Sebastián and Hernández-Gil (2012) demonstrated a continued increase in digit span across ages, suggesting that working memory continues to develop up to 17 years of age.

Frequently Asked Questions about Developmental Pattern of Digit Span

Digit span is a measure of how many digits can be held in short-term memory.

The digit span test is used to measure the capacity of short-term memory.

Joseph Jacobs developed the digit span test based on the previous work of Ebbinghaus.

Digit span tests show how many items you can hold in your short-term memory. The longer the sequences of random digits you can hold and recall without rehearsal, the higher the capacity of your short-term memory. 

The digit span relies on the phonological loop component of short-term memory in the working memory model. The phonological loop stores speech-based information, which means that verbal ability can affect its capacity.

Final Developmental Pattern of Digit Span Quiz

Question

How was the digit span test developed?

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Answer

  • The digit span test was developed based on early memory research of Ebbinghaus in the nineteenth century. 
    • Ebbinghaus used a nonsense syllable span procedure and measured how many sounds he could immediately recall.
  • Later, memory researchers like Joseph Jacobs (1887) adapted and standardised this procedure. 
    • Jacobs recorded the number of digits that can be recalled in a sequence.
    • He aimed to test how many items we can store in short-term memory. 

Show question

Question

What are the components of Baddeley's Working Memory Model?

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Answer

According to Baddeley and Hitch's (1974) Working Memory Model, the short-term memory store consists of the central executive, visuospatial sketchpad, and phonological loop

Show question

Question

What is the digit span test procedure?


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Answer

  • The experimenter presents a sequence of random digits to a participant.
      • like: 4723
  • If they can successfully repeat a sequence of the four digits back, the experimenter will present them with a longer, five-digit sequence until the participant can no longer accurately recall the sequence.

Show question

Question

How does the digit span change across the lifespan?

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Answer

In early childhood, we observe lower digit spans that increase throughout adolescence.

Show question

Question

What does the digit span measure?

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Answer

The digit span test measures the capacity of short-term memory, specifically the phonological loop.

Show question

Question

What is the capacity of the phonological loop for a typical five-year-old and a typical adult?


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Answer

  • A typical five-year-old can only hold around 3.7 digits in short-term memory, according to the study of Sebastián and Hernández-Gil. 
  • A typical adult can hold 7 (+/-2) items in their short-term memory.

Show question

Question

How does old age affect short-term memory?


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Answer

Old age appears to significantly affect working memory.

  • Healthy elderly participants have a decreased digit span (similar to a seven-year-old). 

Show question

Question

Give an explanation for the difference in digit spans between Spanish and English developmental research.

Show answer

Answer

The difference could be due to the language used


The words for Spanish digits tend to be longer than those for English. Longer words can’t be rehearsed as many times as shorter words using inner speech

  • The difference in digit span only appeared after the age of 6, when children start to use inner speech to rehearse information, supporting the word length explanation for the differences. 

Show question

Question

What was the aim of the Sebastián and Hernández-Gil's (2012) study?

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Answer

Sebastián and Hernández-Gil (2012) aimed to investigate the developmental patterns of short-term memory across 5 to 17-year-olds in a Spanish population.

Show question

Question

Why did Sebastián and Hernández-Gil decide to exclude participants with hearing, reading or writing impairments from their study of the developmental patterns of digit span?


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Answer

The ability to recall digits from short-term memory relies on the phonological loop component of the working memory. The phonological loop stores verbal information; therefore, cognitive impairments can affect its capacity.

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Question

What is the central executive responsible for?


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Answer

The central executive is responsible for allocating attention to other components and performing cognitive tasks. 

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Question

What component of the Working Memory Model is tested by the digit span task?


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Answer

The digit span task tests specifically the capacity of the phonological loop component of the Working Memory Model.

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Question

To what component of short-term memory are digits allocated during the digit span test?

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Answer

Digits are allocated to the phonological loop.

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Question

How does dementia affect short-term memory?

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Answer

Dementia doesn’t seem to affect short-term memory much more than old age. Older people with dementia have only slightly lower digit spans compared to healthy individuals (corresponding to a typical six-year-old). 

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Question

Why does the digit span increase around the age of six?

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Answer

Digit span increases as children learn to process information faster. 

Moreover, children begin to use rehearsal to refresh the information stored in short-term memory around the age of six. 

Show question

Question

What were the findings of Sebastián and Hernández-Gil's (2012) study?

Show answer

Answer

Sebastián and Hernández-Gil (2012) found a continued increase in digit span across ages, suggesting that working memory develops until the age of 17.


Show question

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