The many faces of working memory and short-term storage


DOI: 10.3758/s13423-016-1191-6

Cite this article as:
Cowan, N. Psychon Bull Rev (2016). doi:10.3758/s13423-016-1191-6


The topic of working memory (WM) is ubiquitous in research on cognitive psychology and on individual differences. According to one definition, it is a small amount of information kept in a temporary state of heightened accessibility; it is used in most types of communication and problem solving. Short-term storage has been defined as the passive (i.e., non-attention-based, nonstrategic) component of WM or, alternatively, as a passive store separate from an attention-based WM. Here I note that much confusion has been created by the use by various investigators of many, subtly different definitions of WM and short-term storage. The definitions are sometimes made explicit and sometimes implied. As I explain, the different definitions may have stemmed from the use of a wide variety of techniques to explore WM, along with differences in theoretical orientation. By delineating nine previously used definitions of WM and explaining how additional ones may emerge from combinations of these nine, I hope to improve scientific discourse on WM. The potential advantages of clarity about definitions of WM and short-term storage are illustrated with respect to several ongoing research controversies.


Short term memory Working memory 

Funding information

Funder NameGrant NumberFunding Note
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
  • R01 HD-21338

Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Psychological SciencesUniversity of MissouriColumbiaUSA

Personalised recommendations