working memory in infants

A while ago Radiolab did a marvellous programme ‘Words’ on language and cognition. The first 2 contributors discussed cognitive development and language in young children. Following that link I came across this book of papers edited by Hood and Santos on ‘The Origins of Object Knowledge’. I hope that this will provide a wealth of material for this project. As I go through I’m going to use the blog to keep notes on useful findings.

The first paper, Zosh & Feigenson (2009) look at the way that children’s working memory develops and allows them to remember arrays of objects. Working memory is dealt with primarily by the Inferior Intraparietal Sulcus (Inferior IPS), a region of the brain which has been associated with attention and numerical processing; although the superior IPS and posterior parietal cortex are involved in dealing with the complexity of those objects.

It seems that as adults we have a fixed limit on the number of objects we can store in our working memory. Surprisingly the number is very low – 4! When faced with a larger array, adults will not store information about the whole array but about a subset of that array. (This can be tested by making small changes to the array and testing adults’ ability to recognise the changes.) Zosh & Feigenson argue that this is a necessary bit of processing which allows us to deal with pertinent aspects of our physical environment which bombards us with stimuli throughout our waking, walking days.

Zosh & Feigenson were interested in the working memories of infants, i.e., children up to 20 months old, a lot of the existing research indicated that infants had a smaller working memory, i.e., less than 4 objects. Furthermore the research had shown that when adults’ working memories were exceeded the information stored regarding the objects was degraded. (We remember less about the objects.) But when infants’ memories were exceeded they suffered a catastrophic memory loss – they forgot about any of the objects in their working memory.

By carrying out a series of experiments they showed that some of these findings were artefacts of the experimental set-up. Researchers tended to use simple, relatively homogeneous objects. However, when Zosh & Feigenson used more heterogeneous objects they found that young children’s performance became more adult-like. They could hold 4 objects in their working memory and there was no evidence of catastrophic failure of the working memory.

Again, this helps when thinking about object handling but it also has some very practical consequences for the way that educators should structure sessions and the diversity of objects that should be used…


Zosh, J.M. & Feigenson, L. (2009) Beyond ‘what’ and ‘how many’: Capacity, complexity and resolution of infants’ object representations in B.M. Hood & L.R. Santos (eds.) ‘The Origins of Object Knowledge’, Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 25-47

About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in developmental psychology, memory. Bookmark the permalink.

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