Exploring Age Differences in Visual Working Memory Capacity: Is There a Contribution of Memory for Configuration?

Nelson Cowan, J. Scott Saults, Katherine M Clark

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Recent research has shown marked developmental increases in the apparent capacity of working memory. This recent research is based largely on performance on tasks in which a visual array is to be retained briefly for comparison with a subsequent probe display. Here we examine a possible theoretical alternative (or supplement) to a developmental increase in working memory, in which children could improve in the ability to combine items in an array to form a coherent configuration. Elementary school children and adults received, on each trial, an array of colored spots to be remembered. On some trials, we provided structure in the probe display to facilitate the formation of a mental representation in which a coherent configuration is encoded. This stimulus structure in the probe display helped younger children and thus reduced the developmental trend, but only on trials in which the participant was held responsible for the locations of items in the array. We conclude that, in addition to the development of the ability to form precise spatial configurations from items, the evidence is consistent with the existence of an actual developmental increase in working memory capacity for objects in an array.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)72-85
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
Early online date2 Apr 2015
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2015


  • working memory
  • chunking
  • grouping
  • visual short-term memory


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