Estimating working memory capacity for lists of nonverbal sounds

Dawei Li, Nelson Cowan, J Scott Saults

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Working memory (WM) capacity limit has been extensively studied in the domains of visual and verbal stimuli. Previous studies have suggested a fixed WM capacity of typically about three or four items, on the basis of the number of items in working memory reaching a plateau after several items as the set size increases. However, the fixed WM capacity estimate appears to rely on categorical information in the stimulus set (Olsson & Poom Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 102:8776-8780, 2005). We designed a series of experiments to investigate nonverbal auditory WM capacity and its dependence on categorical information. Experiments 1 and 2 used simple tones and revealed capacity limit of up to two tones following a 6-s retention interval. Importantly, performance was significantly higher at set sizes 2, 3, and 4 when the frequency difference between target and test tones was relatively large. In Experiment 3, we added categorical information to the simple tones, and the effect of tone change magnitude decreased. Maximal capacity for each individual was just over three sounds, in the range of typical visual procedures. We propose that two types of information, categorical and detailed acoustic information, are kept in WM and that categorical information is critical for high WM performance.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)145-160
Number of pages16
JournalAttention, Perception, and Psychophysics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2013

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Analysis of Variance
  • Attention
  • Auditory Perception
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term
  • Nonverbal Communication
  • Repetition Priming
  • Sound
  • Time Factors
  • United States
  • Young Adult


Dive into the research topics of 'Estimating working memory capacity for lists of nonverbal sounds'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this