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Many working memory (WM) models propose that the focus of attention (or primary memory) has a capacity limit of one to four items, and therefore, that performance on WM tasks involves retrieving some items from long-term (or secondary) memory (LTM). In the present study, we present evidence suggesting that recall of even one item on a WM task can involve retrieving it from LTM. The WM task required participants to make a deep (living/nonliving) or shallow (“e”/no “e”) level-of-processing (LOP) judgment on one word and to recall the word after a 10-s delay on each trial. During the delay, participants either rehearsed the word or performed an easy or a hard math task. When the to-be-remembered item could be rehearsed, recall was fast and accurate. When it was followed by a math task, recall was slower, error-prone, and benefited from a deeper LOP at encoding, especially for the hard math condition. The authors suggest that a covert-retrieval mechanism may have refreshed the item during easy math, and that the hard math condition shows that even a single item cannot be reliably held in WM during a sufficiently distracting task—therefore, recalling the item involved retrieving it from LTM. Additionally, performance on a final free recall (LTM) test was better for items recalled following math than following rehearsal, suggesting that initial recall following math involved elaborative retrieval from LTM, whereas rehearsal did not. The authors suggest that the extent to which performance on WM tasks involves retrieval from LTM depends on the amounts of disruption to both rehearsal and covert-retrieval/refreshing maintenance mechanisms.

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