Infants have a bandwidth-limited object working memory (WM) that can both individuate and identify objects in a scene, (answering ‘how many?’ or ‘what?’, respectively). Studies of infants’ WM for objects have typically looked for limits on either ‘how many’ or ‘what’, yielding different estimates of infant capacity. Infants can keep track of about three individuals (regardless of identity), but appear to be much more limited in the number of specific identities they can recall. Why are the limits on ‘how many’ and ‘what’ different? Are the limits entirely separate, do they interact, or are they simply two different aspects of the same underlying limit?
We sought to unravel these limits in a series of experiments which tested 9- and 12-month-olds’ WM for object identities under varying degrees of difficulty. In a violation-of-expectation looking-time task, we hid objects one at a time behind separate screens, and then probed infants’ WM for the shape identity of the penultimate object in the sequence. We manipulated the difficulty of the task by varying both the number of objects in hiding locations and the number of means by which infants could detect a shape change to the probed object. We found that 9-month-olds’ WM for identities was limited by the number of hiding locations: when the probed object was one of two objects hidden (one in each of two locations), 9-month-olds succeeded, and they did so even though they were given only one means to detect the change. However, when the probed object was one of three objects hidden (one in each of three locations), they failed, even when they were given two means to detect the shape change. Twelve-month-olds, by contrast, succeeded at the most difficult task level.
Results show that WM for ‘how many’ and for ‘what’ are not entirely separate. Individuated objects are tracked relatively cheaply. Maintaining bindings between indexed objects and identifying featural information incurs a greater attentional/memory cost. This cost reduces with development. We conclude that infant WM supports a small number of featureless object representations that index the current locations of objects. These can have featural information bound to them, but only at substantial cost.