Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Our visual long-term memory has a massive storage capacity for object details

In the Sept 23 issue of PNAS Brady et al. make some striking observations on the capacity of our visual memory stores:
One of the major lessons of memory research has been that human memory is fallible, imprecise, and subject to interference. Thus, although observers can remember thousands of images, it is widely assumed that these memories lack detail. Contrary to this assumption, here we show that long-term memory is capable of storing a massive number of objects with details from the image. Participants viewed pictures of 2,500 objects over the course of 5.5 h. Afterward, they were shown pairs of images and indicated which of the two they had seen. The previously viewed item could be paired with either an object from a novel category, an object of the same basic-level category, or the same object in a different state or pose. Performance in each of these conditions was remarkably high (92%, 88%, and 87%, respectively), suggesting that participants successfully maintained detailed representations of thousands of images. These results have implications for cognitive models, in which capacity limitations impose a primary computational constraint (e.g., models of object recognition), and pose a challenge to neural models of memory storage and retrieval, which must be able to account for such a large and detailed storage capacity.

Figure: Example test pairs presented during the two-alternative forced-choice task for all three conditions (novel, exemplar, and state). The number of observers reporting the correct item is shown for each of the depicted pairs.

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