What is it with degrad­ed speech and work­ing mem­o­ry?

Upcom­ing mon­day, I will present in-house some of my recent rumi­nat­ing on the con­cept of “ver­bal” work­ing mem­o­ry and on-line speech com­pre­hen­sion. It is an ancient issue that received some atten­tion main­ly in the 1980s, in the light of Baddeley’s great (read: testable) work­ing mem­o­ry archi­tec­ture includ­ing the now famous phono­log­i­cal store or buffer.

Now, when we turn to degrad­ed speech (or, degrad­ed hear­ing, for that mat­ter) and want to under­stand how the brain can extract mean­ing from a degrad­ed sig­nal, the debate as to whether or not this requires work­ing mem­o­ry has to be revived.

My main con­cern is that the con­cept of a phono­log­i­cal store always relies on

rep­re­sen­ta­tions […] which […] must, rather, be post-cat­e­gor­i­cal, ‘cen­tral’ rep­re­sen­ta­tions that are func­tion­al­ly remote from more periph­er­al per­cep­tu­al or motoric sys­tems.

Indeed, the use of the term phono­log­i­cal seems to have been delib­er­ate­ly adopt­ed in favor of the terms acoustic or artic­u­la­to­ry (see, e.g., Bad­de­ley, 1992) to indi­cate the abstract nature of the phono­log­i­cal store’s unit of cur­ren­cy.’’

(Jones, Hugh­es, & Mack­en, 2006, p. 266; quot­ed after the worth­while paper by Pa et al.)

But how does the hear­ing sys­tem arrive at such an abstract rep­re­sen­ta­tion when the input is com­pro­mised and less than clear?

I think it all leads to an—at least—twofold under­stand­ing of “work­ing” mem­o­ry in acoustic and speech process­es, each with its own neur­al cor­re­lates, as they sur­face in any brain imag­ing study of lis­ten­ing to (degrad­ed) speech: A pre-cat­e­gor­i­cal, sen­so­ry-based sys­tem, prob­a­bly reflect­ed by acti­va­tions of the planum tem­po­rale that can be tied to com­pen­sato­ry and effort­ful attempts to process the speech signal—and a (more clas­si­cal) post-cat­e­gor­i­cal sys­tem not access­ing acoustic detail any longer and con­nect­ing to long-term mem­o­ry rep­re­sen­ta­tions (phono­log­i­cal and lex­i­cal cat­e­gories) instead.

Stay tuned for more of this.