Array heterogeneity prevents catastrophic forgetting in infants

Jennifer M. Zosh, Lisa Feigenson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Working memory is limited in adults and infants. But unlike adults, infants whose working memory capacity is exceeded often fail in a particularly striking way: they do not represent any of the presented objects, rather than simply remembering as many objects as they can and ignoring anything further (Feigenson & Carey, 2003, 2005). Here we explored the nature of this "catastrophic forgetting," asking whether stimuli themselves modulate the way in which infants' memory fails. We showed 13-month old infants object arrays that either were within or that exceeded working memory capacity-but, unlike previous experiments, presented objects with contrasting features. Although previous studies have repeatedly documented infants' failure to represent four identical hidden objects, in Experiments 1 and 2 we found that infants who saw four contrasting objects hidden, and then retrieved just two of the four, successfully continued searching for the missing objects. Perceptual contrast between objects sufficed to drive this success; infants succeeded regardless of whether the different objects were contrastively labeled, and regardless of whether the objects were semantically familiar or completely novel. In Experiment 3 we explored the nature of this surprising success, asking whether array heterogeneity actually expanded infants' working memory capacity or rather prevented catastrophic forgetting. We found that infants successfully continued searching after seeing four contrasting objects hidden and retrieving two of them, but not after retrieving three of them. This suggests that, like adults, infants were able to remember up to, but not beyond, the limits of their working memory capacity when representing heterogeneous arrays.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)365-380
Number of pages16
StatePublished - Mar 1 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience

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