The effects of declaratively maintaining and proactively proceduralizing novel stimulus-response mappings


Working memory (WM) allows for the maintenance and manipulation of information when carrying out ongoing tasks. Recent models propose that representations in WM can be either in a declarative format (as content of thought) or in a procedural format (in an action-oriented state that drives the cognitive operation to be performed). Current views on the implementation of novel instructions also acknowledge this distinction, assuming these are first encoded as declarative content, and then reformatted into an action-oriented procedural representation upon task demands. Although it is widely accepted that WM has a limited capacity, little is known about the reciprocal costs of maintaining instructions in a declarative format and transforming them in an action code. In a series of three experiments, we asked participants to memorize two or four S-R mappings (i.e., declarative load), and then selected a subset of them by means of a retro-cue to trigger their reformatting into an action-oriented format (i.e., procedural load). We measured the performance in the implementation of the proceduralized mapping and in the declarative recall of the entire set of memorized mappings, to test how the increased load on one component affected the functioning of the other. Our results showed a strong influence of declarative load on the processing of the procedural component, but no effects in the opposite direction. This pattern of results suggests an asymmetry in the costs of maintenance and manipulation in WM, at least when procedural representations cannot be retrieved from long term memory and need to be reformatted online. The available resources seem to be first deployed for the maintenance of all the task-relevant declarative content, and proceduralization takes place to the extent the system can direct attention to the relevant instruction.