Indexing Cell Arrays in Matlab - A Comprehensive Guide

This article will explore the concept of cell arrays and indexing in Matlab. You’ll learn how to manage structured data, efficiently access and manipulate its contents, and create dynamic data structu …

Updated October 6, 2023

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This article will explore the concept of cell arrays and indexing in Matlab. You’ll learn how to manage structured data, efficiently access and manipulate its contents, and create dynamic data structures using indexing techniques. With code samples provided, you can apply these skills to your projects and become a more effective MATLAB programmer.


Cell arrays are a fundamental concept in MATLAB programming that enables working with structured data types, such as data containing nested elements or having variable dimensions. These containers hold multiple elements where each element can be of any data type, including other cell arrays. In short, they’re powerful tools for managing and manipulating complex datasets.

Indexing is a vital aspect in programming languages to access individual components within a collection or array. It allows you to extract specific values from a given container by referring to their position, attribute, or key. This article explores indexing techniques for cell arrays in MATLAB with practical examples and explanations. You’ll see how to navigate through these dynamic data structures using both numeric and non-numeric indices.

Indexing Cell Arrays - Numeric Indices

The most straightforward method of accessing elements within a cell array is by specifying their positions in the form of a numeric index. These numeric indices are sequential numbers, starting from 1 (for first element) to the total number of elements in the array.

Consider this simple example:

C = {[1 2], ['a' 'b'], [0 -3]} % Create a cell array with three nested cells
C{1}                          % Index using numeric indices
ans =
  1   2
ans =
  a  b
ans =
    0  -3

In this example, we created a cell array with three nested cells. By using numeric indices to access these elements (C{1}, C{2}, and C{3}), we obtained the contents of each nested element as separate arrays or strings.

Indexing Cell Arrays - Non-Numeric Indices

While numeric indices are useful, MATLAB also supports indexing cell arrays using non-numeric expressions such as logical conditions (boolean values) and character vectors representing keys in a dictionary or array of structures. Here are two examples:

  1. Logical Conditions:
C = {[1 2], ['a' 'b'], [0 -3]} % Create the cell array as before
C{C == 'b'}                   % Index using a logical condition
ans =
C{any(C < 0)}                  % Use any() function to return true for elements less than zero
ans =

In this example, we used a logical condition (C == ‘b’) to access the cell in C containing the element ‘b’. We also demonstrated indexing based on the value comparison with the < operator. In this case, any() returned true for the elements less than zero, and hence we accessed the nested array containing -3.

  1. Key-based Access:

For cell arrays where the order of elements doesn’t matter or can change frequently, consider using key-based access to index and retrieve information. Here is an example with a dictionary-like structure in MATLAB:

C = {[1 2], ['a' 'b'], [0 -3]} % Create the cell array as before
keys = {'first', 'second'}   % Define keys for accessing elements in C
values = struct(value{key,k} for key in keys, k=1:size(C,1)) % Create structure with cell array values indexed by keys
ans =
  1   2
ans =
  'a'  'b'

In this case, we created a structure with nested fields representing the elements in C, indexed by two predefined keys (‘first’ and ‘second’). Then, accessing these values was as simple as referring to the appropriate key within the structure.

Handling Complex Cell Arrays and Data Structures

While handling basic cell arrays can be straightforward, complex data structures with multiple nested layers might require advanced techniques or additional knowledge of MATLAB programming. For example:

C = {[1 2], ['a' 'b'], [0 -3], {'abc',{'hello','world'}}, [[1;2;3],[4;5;6]]} % Create a cell array with several nested levels of data
C{2,1}                     % Index using numeric indices to access an element within a nested array
ans =
C{1,1} + C{2,1}             % Perform arithmetic operations across elements in different cells
ans =

In this example, we demonstrate the manipulation of cell arrays containing various types and nested levels. We accessed an element within a nested array by specifying its numeric index (C{2,1}) and performed simple addition between two elements in different cells. The outcome illustrates how MATLAB enables the creation of dynamic data structures and efficient access through indexing techniques.


Indexing cell arrays is an essential skill for any Matlab programmer to master. By understanding how to use both numeric and non-numeric indices, you can efficiently manipulate structured data types, including nested elements and various levels of complexity. Remember that while the examples in this article are simple, more complex scenarios might require additional knowledge and creativity to overcome challenges. Keep practicing and exploring new techniques to become an expert in handling cell arrays in Matlab.