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Spatial Span

Test type: Memory

How good is your short-term memory?

Try this test to find out.

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The spatial span task exercises your visuospatial working memory; the component of working memory that allows you to temporarily hold and manipulate information about places. Many everyday activities involve visuospatial working memory, including finding your way around your environment, judging the position of other motorists while you are driving and searching for your keys. According to one very influential cognitive model of working memory (Badderly & Hitch, 1974) visuospatial working memory depends on a specialised sub-component of the working memory system. This is referred to as the ‘visuospatial sketchpad’ and is thought to have a visual ‘cache’, responsible for storing visual form and colour information, and an ‘inner scribe’ which deals with spatial and movement information. This task places significant demands on the inner scribe. How many squares can you remember?


The spatial span task is a variation of the Corsi block tapping task (Corsi, 1972), a widely used tool in clinical neuropsychology to assess non-verbal memory deficits. The original task involves irregularly arranged mounted wooden blocks, and the examiner taps out a sequence that the patient is required to mimic. Neuropsychological assessment reveals that brain injured patients who have damage to the parieto-occiptal parts of their brain show impaired performance at this task. Although some frontal lesion patients have also shown visual spatial deficits, this tends to only be the case when the visual spatial memory task involves a planning component (Owen et al, 1990). To try to understand more about visuospatial memory we scanned the brains of participants using a technique known as positron emission tomography (or 'PET' scanning) while they were performing this task. The results showed that performance was associated with activity increases in the mid-ventrolateral frontal, posterior parietal and right premotor cortices (Owen et al, 1999).

Our recent research, as well as several classic studies in the neuroscientific literature, have shown that visuospatial memory can be improved through 'chunking' strategies. Chunking involves recoding items into memorable clusters of information. It is this process that is thought to underlie the expert abilities of Chess Masters. In one study, Chess Masters were shown a chess board configuration for only a few seconds and were much more able to accurately recreate the same configuration than non-expert players (Simon & Gilmartin, 1973). These experts seem to use their knowledge to create meaningful chunks, consisting of several chess pieces, thereby increasing the capacity of their visuospatial memory. The size of an expert's vocabulary of chess-related configurations was estimated to be an incredible 50,000 to 100,000 chunks!! Using a type of brain scanning known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) we have recently shown that the lateral prefrontal cortex contributes to our ability to chunk information (Bor et al, 2003).

-Bor, D., Duncan, J., Wiseman, R.J.,Owen, A. M (2003). Encoding strategies dissociates prefrontal activity from working memory demand. Neuron, 37(2), 361-367. Download PDF
-Baddeley, A.D., & Hitch, G. (1974). Working memory. In G.H. Bower (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation: Advances in research and theory (Vol. 8, pp. 47--89). New York: Academic Press
-Corsi,P.M.(1972) , Human memory and the medial temporal region of the brain, Unpublished doctoral dissertation McGill University.
-Hampshire, A., Highfield, R., Parkin, B., Owen, A.M. (2012) Fractionating Human Intelligence Neuron. -Owen A.M., Downes, J.D., Sahakian, B.J., Polkey, C.E. and Robbins T.W. (1990). Planning and spatial working memory following frontal lobe lesions in Man. Neuropsychologia, 28 (10), 10211034.Read Abstract
-Owen, A.M., Herrod, N.J., Menon, D.K., Clark, J.C., Downey, S.P.M.J., Carpenter, T.A., Minhas, P.S., Turkheimer, F.E., Williams, E.J., Robbins, T.W., Sahakian, B.J., Petrides, M. and Pickard, J.D.(1999). Redefining the functional organisation of working memory processes within human lateral prefrontal cortex. European Journal of Neuroscience, 11(2), 567-574.Read Abstract

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