Memory span is a measure of a person’s ability to remember a sequence of items or information (Alvarez & Emory, 2006). It is a fundamental component of cognition and is essential to everyday functioning (Salthouse, 2010). The average memory span is 7 ± 2 items for adults (Miller, 1956). Memory span is typically examined using a variety of tasks, including digit and word span (Daneman & Carpenter, 1980) and is thought to reflect a person’s ability to encode, store, and recall information (Gathercole & Alloway, 2008).

The development of memory span is thought to be influenced by both maturational and experiential factors (Case, Kurland, & Goldberg, 1982). In terms of maturational influences, memory span increases with age, beginning in early childhood (Case et al., 1982; Gathercole & Alloway, 2008). This increase in memory span is thought to result from the development of more sophisticated cognitive processes, such as increased attentional processes and improved working memory (Gathercole & Alloway, 2008). In terms of experiential influences, memory span has been found to be related to a variety of factors, including education level (Salthouse, 2010), language abilities (Gathercole & Alloway, 2008), executive functioning (Kane & Engle, 2002), and even reading and math abilities (Case et al., 1982).

Memory span has been found to play an important role in daily functioning. For example, memory span has been found to predict reading comprehension (Daneman & Carpenter, 1980) and academic achievement (Case et al., 1982). It has also been found to predict performance on standardized tests (Kane & Engle, 2002) and everyday activities, such as shopping (Alvarez & Emory, 2006). In addition, research has shown that individuals with poor memory span are more likely to experience social difficulties (Case et al., 1982).

In summary, memory span is an important component of cognition that is essential to everyday functioning. It is thought to be influenced by both maturational and experiential factors and is related to a variety of everyday activities, including reading comprehension and academic achievement.


Alvarez, J.A., & Emory, E. (2006). Executive function and the frontal lobes: A meta-analytic review. Neuropsychology Review, 16, 17–42.

Case, R., Kurland, D.M., & Goldberg, J. (1982). Operational efficiency and the growth of short-term memory span. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 33, 386–404.

Daneman, M., & Carpenter, P.A. (1980). Individual differences in working memory and reading. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 19, 450–466.

Gathercole, S.E., & Alloway, T.P. (2008). Working memory and learning: A practical guide for teachers. London, UK: Sage Publications.

Kane, M.J., & Engle, R.W. (2002). The role of prefrontal cortex in working-memory capacity, executive attention, and general fluid intelligence: An individual-differences perspective. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 9, 637–671.

Miller, G.A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81–97.

Salthouse, T.A. (2010). Major issues in the study of cognitive aging. In S.H. Hofer & P.R. Pintrich (Eds.), Handbook of educational psychology (pp. 284–303). New York, NY: Routledge.

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