Working memory load affects processing time in spoken word recognition: Evidence from eye-movements

Britt Hadar, Joshua E. Skrzypek, Arthur Wingfield, Boaz M. Ben-David*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In daily life, speech perception is usually accompanied by other tasks that tap into working memory capacity. However, the role of working memory on speech processing is not clear. The goal of this study was to examine how working memory load affects the timeline for spoken word recognition in ideal listening conditions. We used the "visual world" eye-tracking paradigm. The task consisted of spoken instructions referring to one of four objects depicted on a computer monitor (e.g., "point at the candle"). Half of the trials presented a phonological competitor to the target word that either overlapped in the initial syllable (onset) or at the last syllable (offset). Eye movements captured listeners' ability to differentiate the target noun from its depicted phonological competitor (e.g., candy or sandal). We manipulated working memory load by using a digit pre-load task, where participants had to retain either one (low-load) or four (high-load) spoken digits for the duration of a spoken word recognition trial. The data show that the high-load condition delayed real-time target discrimination. Specifically, a four-digit load was sufficient to delay the point of discrimination between the spoken target word and its phonological competitor. Our results emphasize the important role working memory plays in speech perception, even when performed by young adults in ideal listening conditions.

Original languageEnglish
Article number221
JournalFrontiers in Neuroscience
Issue numberMAY
StatePublished - 2016


  • Eye-tracking
  • Speech perception
  • Visual world paradigm
  • Word recognition
  • Working memory


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