Knowledge cannot explain the developmental growth of working memory capacity

Nelson Cowan, Timothy J Ricker, Katherine M Clark, Garrett A Hinrichs, Bret A Glass

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

According to some views of cognitive growth, the development of working memory capacity can account for increases in the complexity of cognition. It has been difficult to ascertain, though, that there actually is developmental growth in capacity that cannot be attributed to other developing factors. Here we assess the role of item familiarity. We document developmental increases in working memory for visual arrays of English letters versus unfamiliar characters. Although letter knowledge played a special role in development between the ages of 6 and 8 years, children with adequate letter knowledge showed practically the same developmental growth in normalized functions for letters and unfamiliar characters. The results contribute to a growing body of evidence that the developmental improvement in working memory does not wholly stem from supporting processes such as encoding, mnemonic strategies, and knowledge. A video abstract is available at:

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)132-145
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 18 Jun 2014


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