Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California


UCLA Previously Published Works bannerUCLA

Working Memory: A Cognitive Limit to Non-Human Primate Recursive Thinking Prior to Hominid Evolution


In this paper I explore the possibility that recursion is not part of the cognitive repertoire of non-human primates such as chimpanzees due to limited working memory capacity. Multiple lines of data, from nut cracking to the velocity and duration of cognitive development, imply that chimpanzees have a short-term memory size that limits working memory to dealing with two, or at most three, concepts at a time. If so, as a species they lack the cognitive capacity for recursive thinking to be integrated into systems of social organization and communication. If this limited working memory capacity is projected back to a common ancestor for Pan and Homo, it follows that early hominid ancestors would have had limited working memory capacity. Hence we should find evidence for expansion of working memory capacity during hominid evolution reflected in changes in the products of conceptually framed activities such as stone tool production. Data on the artifacts made by our hominid ancestors support this expansion hypothesis for hominid working memory, thereby leading to qualitative differences between Pan and Homo.

Many UC-authored scholarly publications are freely available on this site because of the UC's open access policies. Let us know how this access is important for you.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View