Working Memory Capacity

By Nelson Cowan

© 2006 – Psychology Press

260 pages | 26 B/W Illus.

Purchasing Options:
Paperback: 9781138006041
pub: 2014-06-09
US Dollars$54.95
Hardback: 9781841690971
pub: 2005-09-16
US Dollars$65.00

About the Book

The idea of one's memory "filling up" is a humorous misconception of how memory in general is thought to work; it is actually has no capacity limit. However, the idea of a "full brain" makes more sense with reference to working memory, which is the limited amount of information a person can hold temporarily in an especially accessible form for use in the completion of almost any challenging cognitive task.

This groundbreaking book explains the evidence supporting Cowan's theoretical proposal about working memory capacity, and compares it to competing perspectives. Cognitive psychologists profoundly disagree on how working memory is limited: whether by the number of units that can be retained (and, if so, what kind of units and how many?), the types of interfering material, the time that has elapsed, some combination of these mechanisms, or none of them. The book assesses these hypotheses and examines explanations of why capacity limits occur, including vivid biological, cognitive, and evolutionary accounts. The book concludes with a discussion of the practical importance of capacity limits in daily life.

Incorporating the latest from the recent surge in research into working memory capacity limits and the remarkable new insights provided by neuroimaging techniques, this book serves as an invaluable resource for all memory researchers and is accessible to a wide range of readers.


"This is an excellent and timely manuscript that I would expect to be widely read by cognitive psychologists with an interest in working memory and attention. It addresses a classic issue, namely the question of whether short-term memory has a limited capacity…presents a clear and balanced view of the field…" -- Alan Baddeley, University of York

"This is an excellent book, bringing a wealth of knowledge to bear to make the case for a daring hypothesis that will have a large impact on the study of working memory and our understanding of human cognitive abilities." -- Klaus Oberauer, University of Bristol

"Cowan demonstrates a scholarly mastery of his subject and includes a broad range of evidence from other fields." -- Victor Colotla, in PsycCRITIQUES August 2006

Table of Contents

Preface. The Problem of Capacity Limits. The Processing System as a Context to Examine Capacity. Refinement of the Concept of Working Memory Capacity. Capacity Limits and the Measurement of Chunking. Further Evidence of a Constant Capacity. Other Views of Capacity Limits. Why the Capacity Limit?.

About the Author

Nelson Cowan is currently Professor of Psychology, University of Missouri. His research specializations include short-term or working memory, childhood development of short-term and working memory, and the relationship between working memory and selective attention. Nelson edited a book for Psychology Press on the Development of Memory in Childhood (1997) and is currently an Associate Editor on our journal, the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, Section A.

About the Series

Essays in Cognitive Psychology

Essays in Cognitive Psychology is designed to meet the need for rapid publication of brief volumes in cognitive psychology.

Primary topics include perception, movement and action, attention, memory, mental representation, language and problem solving.

Furthermore, the series seeks to define cognitive psychology in its broadest sense, encompassing all topics either informed by, or informing, the study of mental processes. As such, it covers a wide range of subjects including computational approaches to cognition, cognitive neuroscience, social cognition, and cognitive development, as well as areas more traditionally defined as cognitive psychology.

Each volume in the series makes a conceptual contribution to the topic by reviewing and synthesizing the existing research literature, by advancing theory in the area, or by some combination of these missions.

The principal aim is that authors provide an overview of their own highly successful research program in an area.

Volumes also include an assessment of current knowledge and identification of possible future trends in research.

Each book is a self-contained unit supplying the advanced reader with a well-structured review of the work described and evaluated.

Learn more…

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
PSYCHOLOGY / Cognitive Psychology