How does the brain's visual memory work?

How does the brain's visual memory work?

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I have read a lot about people who are good memorizing images (visual type memory), music, words, numbers, etc. but I have never read a lot about how all these things are "saved" in our brain.

I am not trying to understand the biological part, that is far away from my competences, I am talking more about a more general layer, like what we actually memorize?

I will start from an example: what do we "save" when we remember an image?

  • Do we memorize all the "pixels" as a computer would?

This depends on the type of memory you are talking about.

In general though, the idea of pixels and 'saving' an image like a computer is not very accurate. Our eyes don't have an even distribution of photoreceptors, only a very small portion of our view is in focus and there are big obstructions (a blind spot where the nerve endings leave the eyeball, obscured vision by the nose, etc.). What we perceive is not "pixels" being picked up by the eye but an image that is reconstructed by the brain. Our perception is our brain's interpretation rather than raw data coming in (that is why it is subject to illusions, like the checker shadow illusion).

We have a sensory memory store that helps us actually see a stable image and is also responsible for things like after images or seeing a swinging sparkler as a circle of light (again our perception is an integration and interpretation rather than the raw data of the sparkler moving). Some of that can even happen unconsciously.

When it comes to remembering an image we saw a while ago, there is evidence that we reconstruct it in a backwards way, starting wit the main gist first. It is more like placing the important objects there and then filling in the details with what we remember. Interestingly, every time we recall a memory the reconstruction influences our subsequent recall, which can result in completely false memories. Say, we remember seeing a red car on a rainy day. When we remember this image, we immediately remember the red car but may not have much recollection of the weather. The brain may remember the red very lusciously because it stood out to us rather than because it was bright and falsely interpret that as it being a bright and sunny day. With each recall, we may fill in the weather more towards the sunny side until we are fully convinced it was a sunny day.

On the whole, visual memory is not like pixels but more like object reconstruction. Hope this helps


Wikipedia (n.d.) Checker Shadow Illusion

Pang, D. K., & Elntib, S. (2021). Strongly masked content retained in memory made accessible through repetition. Scientific reports, 11(1), 1-10.

Linde-Domingo, J., Treder, M. S., Kerrén, C., & Wimber, M. (2019). Evidence that neural information flow is reversed between object perception and object reconstruction from memory. Nature communications, 10(1), 1-13.

Neuroscience News (2020). Brain's 'updating mechanisms' may create false memories

Materials and Methods


Fourteen adults (aged 20–35) gave informed consent and participated in the experiment. All of the participants were tested simultaneously, by using computer workstations that were closely matched for monitor size and viewing distance.


Stimuli were gathered by using both a commercially available database (Hemera Photo-Objects, Vol. I and II) and internet searches by using Google Image Search. Overall, 2,600 categorically distinct images were gathered for the main database, plus 200 paired exemplar images and 200 paired state images drawn from categories not represented in the main database. The experimental stimuli are available from the authors. Once these images had been gathered, 200 were selected at random from the 2,600 objects to serve in the novel test condition. Thus, all participants were tested with the same 300 pairs of novel, exemplar, and state images. However, the item seen during the study session and the item used as the foil at test were randomized across participants.

Study Blocks.

The experiment was broken up into 10 study blocks of ≈20 min each, followed by a 30 min of testing session. Between blocks participants were given a 5-min break, and were not allowed to discuss any of the images they had seen. During a block, ≈300 images were shown, with 2,896 images shown overall: 2,500 new and 396 repeated images. Each image (subtending 7.5 by 7.5° of visual angle) was presented for 3 s, followed by an 800-ms fixation cross.

Repeat-Detection Task.

To maintain attention and to probe online memory capacity, participants performed a repeat-detection task during the 10 study blocks. Repeated images were inserted into the stream such that there were between 0 and 1,023 intervening items, and participants were told to respond by using the spacebar anytime that an image repeated throughout the entire study period. They were not informed of the structure of the repeat conditions. Participants were given feedback only when they responded, with the fixation cross turning red if they had incorrectly pressed the space bar (false alarm) or green if they had correctly detected a repeat (hit), and were given no feedback for misses or correct rejections.

Overall, 56 images were repeated immediately (1-back), 52 were repeated with 1 intervening item (2-back), 48 were repeated with 3 intervening items (4-back), 44 were repeated with 7 intervening items (8-back), and so forth, down to 16 repeated with 1,023 intervening items (1,024-back). Repeat items were inserted into the stream uniformly, with the constraint that all of the lengths of n-backs (1-back, 2-back, 4-back, and 1,024-back) had to occur equally in the first half of the experiment and the second half. This design ensured that fatigue would not differentially affect images that were repeated from further back in the stream. Due to the complexity of generating a properly counterbalanced set of repeats, all participants had repeated images appear at the same places within the stream. However, each participant saw a different order of the 2,500 objects, and the specific images repeated in the n-back conditions were also different across participants. Images that would later be tested in one of the three memory conditions were never repeated during the study period.

Forced-Choice Tests.

Following a 10-min break after the study period, we probed the fidelity with which objects were remembered. Two items were presented on the screen, one previously seen old item, and one new foil item. Observers reported which item they had seen before in a two-alternative forced-choice task.

Participants were allowed to proceed at their own pace and were told to emphasize accuracy, not speed, in making their judgments. The 300 test trials were presented in a random order for each participant, with the three types of test trials (novel, exemplar, and state) interleaved. The images that would later be tested were distributed uniformly throughout the study period.

Conclusions and Future Directions

To date, our work has been predominantly laboratory based. However, visual attention, learning and memory are all happening in nature. Recent developments in large-scale digital data collection are making it possible to obtain precise measurements from infants and children engaging, playing and socializing in their natural habitats. We have built a space in our lab at Brown University, in collaboration with Profs. Kevin Bath and Thomas Serre, which is wired with cameras to capture children at all angles. Infants and children wear portable eye trackers and devices for collection of heart-rate data and galvanic skin response and for linguistic recording. The short-term goal is to capture subtle patterns of behavior that give us information about the physiology, environmental variables and dynamics of attention orienting in the wild and during development. The longer-term goal is to combine these measurements with big data tools, including computational vision and machine learning, to automate the coding of human behavior. This approach has the benefit of reducing the human bias and burden in management of large data sets involving human behavior in real time. It also has the benefit of allowing scientists to discover which patterns of behavior are most predictive of optimal and sub-optimal outcomes in both typical and atypical populations.

Memory encompasses everything from thoughts of childhood friends to a mental list of what we need to pick up at the grocery store. It is essential for our sense of self, and allows us to learn from our previous experiences. In general, a memory is a piece of information stored in your brain, but the quality of this information and the length of storage time vary greatly. How memories are formed, and what causes us to forget, have long been topics of great interest in the field of neuroscience.

The brain is the most complex human organ. It is made up of millions of cells called neurons that are interconnected in a vast network. Cells in certain regions of the brain perform specialized functions. For instance, one particular area of the brain is important for vision and another for movement. Functions of many brain areas have been worked out through extensive study of people who have suffered brain damage in addition to studies with model organisms, such as mice.

It is believed that long-term memories are stored in different areas across the brain, depending on the contents of the information. A single memory can even be partitioned to multiple brain regions. For example, the visual trace of a memory is stored in the area of the brain involved in sight perception. If part of this visualization region is damaged, our memories of what we see may be affected as well. For example, if the color processing part of the brain is damaged, a person recalls previous experiences in black and white [1]. This is a logical way to store information, as it allows the brain to gain quick access to past information when it needs to be integrated with incoming sensory perceptions. Navigation is a clear example of this. Certain visual cues in the environment (e.g. a blue post box, an old gnarled tree) may trigger a memory of past times you have travelled the same route, helping you decide where to make the next turn.

Decoding how the brain stores memories is a tricky business. When neurons are activated, their electrical charge changes briefly. If strong enough, this change in electrical charge can trigger the neuron to release chemicals that signal to connected neurons. Information can be encoded in this network of neurons in multiple ways. The particular signal received by the brain depends on which neuron is activated, when it is activated, the duration of its activation, and how often it is activated. While imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have allowed us to look into a working brain while people perform particular tasks, the resolution is low. It has helped us determine which brain regions are important for a given task, but it does not tell us the specific neuronal activity pattern needed to store information in the associated region of the brain.

A recent paper in the journal Nature sheds light on how neurons encode a memory, and how the brain uses this information to make decisions [2,3]. The researchers in this study, led by Dr. David Tank, aimed to better understand brain function by developing new and exciting techniques that now allow imaging of individual brain cells in live mice as they perform behavioral tasks.

To achieve this, they inserted new genes into mice, causing the mice to produce proteins that enabled the researchers to directly visualize neuronal activity. When a neuron is activated, pores on the surface of the neuron open up and allow electrically charged calcium to flow into the cell. This calcium influx triggers the release of chemicals from the cell, which in turn allows the neuron to communicate with its neighbors. To track the location, timing, and duration of the activation of individual cells, scientists inserted a special gene into the mice that encodes a protein that causes cells to light up in the presence of calcium.

However, in order to clearly image brain cells, the mouse’s head must be still. This is a problem if you want to look at neuronal activity while the mouse is running around. Cleverly, Dr. Tank sidestepped this issue by developing a virtual reality system that allows the mice to run through a maze while their heads are held in place. The mice are trained to run on a suspended ball, the rotation of which controls the scene presented on a screen in front of them. The mouse is thus able to navigate through the virtual environment, and can be taught to run through a maze in order to gain a reward, all while researchers look at which cells are being activated during this task [4].

Tank’s team devised a maze that tests both a mouse’s memory as well as its ability to use its memories to make decisions. In the maze, mice run through a straight corridor that contains visual cues. Different cues alert the mice to turn either left or right at an upcoming fork for a reward. The mice then pass through a ‘delay’ period, a straight corridor that lacks any visual information. After this corridor, mice must remember the previous cues in order to make the correct navigation choice that will lead to a reward.

Tank and his colleagues found that as mice ran through this maze, a certain sequence of neuronal activity was triggered and differed depending on whether the cues signaled a left or right decision. Each individual neuron involved in these sequences was only active for a short period of time, but their combined activity formed a specific and distinct temporal sequence that began after receiving either a left-turn signal or a right turn one. This activity pattern was similar between trials near the beginning of the task, but as the mouse ran, the “right” and “left” firing sequence became increasingly distinct, until the signals were easily distinguishable by the time the mouse decided to turn. Visual cues encountered during the first part of the task trigger a specific pattern of neuronal activation, allowing the mouse to choose the correct path later. Interestingly, when the mouse made a wrong turn, the neuronal pattern began correctly, but at some point during the trial switched to the neuronal pattern of the opposite turn. Researchers could actually see the mouse change its mind as the neuronal firing pattern shifted. This shift was most likely to occur during the delay period, but could occur at any time during the task, even when the mouse was still running through the visual cue area. While specific neurons preferred either left or right, these neurons were intermingled together within the same area of the brain, indicating that although large regions may be responsible for certain types of tasks, within those regions the specific neurons required for different memories are mixed together.

This paper provides new insight into previous findings from studies on human memory. For example, researchers have found that when people are having difficulty remembering a specific word, their memory may be triggered by a word that shares common features (e.g., someone might recall the word “fluorescence” after someone else mentions the word “floor”). While no one knows whether words are stored in a similar manner as navigational memories, you can imagine that the ‘floor’ sound might trigger a neuronal activity sequence shared by the word fluorescence [5]. This may also help explain age related dementia and confusion – if the connections between neurons are not as strong, it may lead to more frequent switching between activity sequences. While Tank’s research provides us valuable insight into how the brain processes and stores information, more research is necessary to determine how this occurs with different tasks and in disease states.

Rebecca Reh is a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in Neuroscience at Harvard Medical School.

Additional Resource


[1] Squire, Larry and Wixted, John. The Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory since H.M. Annual Review of Neuroscience, v. 34: 259-288 (July 2011).

[2] Harvey, Christopher et al. Choice-specific sequences in parietal cortex during a virtual-navigation decision task. Nature, v. 484: 62-68 (5 April 2012).

Overview of the WAIS–IV/WMS–IV/ACS

Lisa Whipple Drozdick , . Xiaobin Zhou , in WAIS-IV, WMS-IV, and ACS , 2013

Visual Memory Index

The Visual Memory Index (VMI) reflects an individual’s ability to register, encode, and retrieve visual and spatial information, and to reconstruct it immediately and following a 20–30 minute delay. The subtests within the index assess memory for visual detail, spatial relations, and single-trial learning. Recall of spatial locations is also assessed in the Adult battery but is not directly measured in the Older Adult battery. The VMI consists of the immediate and delayed conditions of Visual Reproduction and Designs in the Adult battery and of the immediate and delayed conditions of Visual Reproduction in the Older Adult battery.

The subtest differences in the composition of the VMI across batteries need to be accounted for in administration and interpretation of results. The Designs (DE) subtest was designed for the WMS–IV Visual Memory domain and is not included in the Older Adult battery due to an inadequate floor in the older age groups. Although recall of spatial relations is required in Visual Reproduction (VR), Designs more directly measures spatial memory. Therefore, spatial memory has a greater influence on the Adult battery. Moreover, VR requires a motor response, and although the scoring system was modified from the WMS–III to directly relate scores to memory functioning, motor ability may influence results. Both DE and VR require reconstruction of the visual stimuli presented however, DE uses a recognition format while VR is free recall. As previously mentioned, recognition tasks are typically easier than free recall tasks and this should be considered if scores are disparate across DE and VR. It is important to note that the guess factor in DE is lower than that observed in many visual memory tasks (e.g., 50% guess rate for Faces in the WMS–III).

Visual Perception

Vision is the brain’s primary portal on the world, and research on visual perception is critical not only to understanding brain mechanisms of vision but also to understanding how people are able to optimize visually guided tasks. Our research group is devoted to understanding mid- to high-level visual processes, where vision interfaces with other cognitive and motor systems to support intelligent behavior. Specifically, we study how an image of the external world, available to the eyes, is transformed into a meaningful representation of objects, surfaces, and scenes. In addition, we focus on understanding the mechanisms of attention and attentional control that allow the brain to select objects that are relevant to current goals and behavior.

The Visual Perception Research Group is composed of three main laboratories within the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, led by professors Andrew Hollingworth, Cathleen Moore, J. Toby Mordkoff, and Shaun Vecera. Ph.D. students and post-docs tend to have a primary home in one of the four laboratories, but the research group is highly collaborative, and most students develop projects that span laboratories and advisors. In addition to the four labs here in Psychological and Brain Sciences, there is a rich network of collaboration with other research groups across campus at the University of Iowa that study related aspects of vision and perception.

Join our group to start exploring visual perception with us at Iowa! We encourage interested graduate students to contact one or more of the primary faculty before applying to discuss research interests and opportunities. Students formally apply to one of the three broad graduate training areas (Clinical Science, Cognitive, or Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience), or through our Individualized Graduate Training Track. Graduate training is student-centered, with the program of study designed for each student to meet their career objectives and to prepare them for the next career stage. Students conduct research from the beginning of their graduate careers and are encouraged to develop independent lines of work as soon as possible.

Very simply, it is the relationship between what we see, and the resulting storage, retrieval, and, encoding that takes place in our brains. It refers to the ability to process perceptions when the stimuli needed to trigger them are no longer present.

Our visual memory can span a broad range, from what we saw seconds ago to what we saw years earlier in a previous location. It preserves the knowledge captured by our senses. With its help, we can retain information about the resemblance of objects, animals, or people. Visual memory is one of our many cognitive systems that integrate to form our memories. It also refers to the ability to organize the information we perceive.

Why visual perception is essential

Our visual memories are necessary for writing and reading. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to produce visual stimuli sequences, such as words for reading and spelling. Kids with poor visual recognition are seldom able to configure words or sentences because they cannot recall the series of letters in a word. They cannot develop sight vocabulary as a result.

To add, kids with memory deficits cannot perform handwritten or copywritten tasks because they have trouble copying words and sentences. A kid will find it hard to produce work on worksheets and other written assignments. Researchers have also discovered that poor visual perception affects performance in mathematical tasks.

How to Develop Your Visual Processing Skills with These 8 Fun Exercises

If you struggle to remember simple tasks like remembering phone numbers, we have ready solutions. These simple activities can help you improve your visual memory, and research has proven time and again that it is possible to stimulate it.

1. Form associations and patterns

This first strategy is useful for remembering numbers in a series. Everyone has numbers that mean a lot to them – they may represent anniversaries or birthdays. When trying to remember the number 5617, make an association between the number and something that’s meaningful to you. Perhaps a friend of yours is 56 years old while your daughter is 17.

If you struggle to form associations with numbers that mean nothing to you, try typing them into the Google search engine. Suppose you have to remember a new code, 30204. Type it into the Google search bar. Perhaps a list of websites with 2004 will come up. Then figure out how to tie it to the first part of the number, 30. Your sister may have turned 30 in 2004. And that’s it! you’ve formed an association.

2. Imagine the shapes the numbers make

When recalling a number series, try imagining the shape that they make on a keypad. People use this technique to remember numeric passwords, phone pins, or credit card numbers.

3. Doodling

Sketching will help you if you find it difficult to remember faces or places. It’s best to draw while they are fresh in your mind. Suppose you’ve just been to a place and are trying to recall everything about it. Visualize it and doodle your vision. Form associations by imagining what it would be like if it had certain objects. It is a fun way to build recall and working memory.

4. Explain concepts to yourself

When trying to understand a new concept, explain it to yourself. Let’s say that you’re an accounting student who has just learned how to balance ledgers. Apply the skill with a new set of figures and items. You may even put it to use with your expenses and earnings.

5. Note-taking

People record notes during classes because it helps them retain information. The notes enable them to visualize concepts. Read actively by asking questions about the material.

6. Break it down

Your visual memory will become overwhelmed if you try to remember a large chunk of data at once. Break it down into bite sizes. For example, it’s easier to remember a few numbers than many of them. When trying to memorize a number series, try to recall a few digits instead of all of them at once.

7. Card Games

Games like Uno or Go Fish present opportunities for family fun. They also develop the memory because you have to recall the cards already played.

8. Rely on all the senses

When trying to recall an experience, think about what you’ve heard or smelt. Try to remember what you’ve touched as well. Then, form the connections between these details. Doing all this will make experiences memorable and develop your visual recollection as well.

In a nutshell, your visual memory is the key to your success. Trigger it with these activities.

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How do musician's brains work while playing?

When musicians play instruments, their brains are processing a huge amount and variety of information in parallel. Musical styles and strengths vary dramatically: Some musicians are better at sight reading music, while others are better at playing by ear. Does this mean that their brains are processing information differently?

This is a question posed by Eriko Aiba, an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Informatics and Engineering at the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo, Japan. During the 172nd Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America and the 5th Joint Meeting with Acoustical Society of Japan, being held Nov. 28-Dec. 2, 2016, in Honolulu, Hawaii, Aiba will present research that delves into the various ways the brain engages in music signal processing.

Aiba began learning to play the piano when she was five years old, and quickly realized that musicians might be roughly divided into two groups: sight readers and those who play by ear.

"When considering a human brain as a computer, playing a musical instrument requires the brain to process a huge amount and variety of information in parallel," explained Aiba. "For example, pianists need to read a score, plan the music, search for the keys to be played while planning the motions of their fingers and feet, and control their fingers and feet. They must also adjust the sound intensity and usage of the sustaining pedal according to the output sound."

Such information processing is too complicated for a computer, so how do the brains of professional musicians handle such complex information processing?

One piece of this puzzle is that pianists who are good at playing by ear are also good at memorizing, according to the group's findings when they put it to the test.

"Some were able to memorize almost the entirety of two pages of a complex musical score -- despite only 20 minutes of practice," Aiba said. This means that auditory memory may be helpful for memorizing music following short-term practice.

They also discovered that "each musician has their own strategy -- even if it appears they're all playing the piano in the same way," she added. "These strategies aren't completely different, however, because most musicians have some things in common."

The group's findings extend well beyond professional musicians to experts within other fields who also practice extremely hard every day to excel in their skills.

"It's difficult to validate individual differences &hellip and the conclusion that 'the strategy depends on individuals' could not be assumed to be scientific research," said Aiba. "On the other hand, it may now be possible to categorize professional musicians based on their type of prioritizing modality information -- in terms of visual and auditory processing."

This work may help contribute to several research areas exploring expertise and performance. One, in particular, is language learning.

"To learn a language, some people prefer to read phrases aloud repeatedly -- combining auditory and motion information. Others prefer to write phrases repeatedly -- combining visual and motion information," Aiba explained. "But some prefer to simply read -- visual information. They're all studying a language, but their brains are processing the information in different ways, depending on the strategy best suited to them."

It will take more time to "reveal our brains' brilliant strategy," Aiba noted, but it may lead to the development of efficient, individualized learning methods in the future.

Iconic memory is a form of sensory memory that stores visual short term impressions and sensations. Sensory memory is ultra-short-term memory that lasts only milliseconds for most people following stimulus offset or onset. Iconic memory is the sensory memory related to visual memory, and might also be called &ldquovisual short term memory.&rdquo It is called iconic because of icons, or pictures that your brain takes of things that you see, as visual scenes are used to round out immediate perceptions and reach conclusions regarding visual cues.

Some people confuse iconic memory with photographic memory. While there is little evidence that photographic memory is real&mdashand if it is real, how exactly it works&mdashiconic memory is definitive, with a wide body of research. Photographic memory is the ability to see something and remember it from a brief image alone. Iconic memory is simply your brain's way of processing visual information via the initial display of any given visual stimuli.

Iconic memory does not last long, as is evidenced by many studies. You can see iconic memory at it's best through a simple exercise. Close your eyes for a few seconds. Open your eyes for one or two seconds (just long enough to focus on an object) then close them again. For a very brief time, you will still see the image in your mind's eye. That is iconic, visual short term memory at work, keeping the image alive for a brief time after stimulus offset.


There are three types of persistence that occur with visual stimuli and iconic memory tasks: neural persistence, visible persistence, and informational persistence. Neural persistence occurs when neural activity continues after the stimuli is gone. Visible persistence is when you continue to see the image after it is gone, such as with a bright flash of light. Informational persistence is when information about the visual stimuli is still available to the person for some time after the stimuli is gone. Studies in the past have concluded that these three forms of visual persistence rely upon one another and are the source of visual information relayed after offset of stimulus in studies about visual persistence. However, new research has found that this is not the case.

According to newer studies, there are two phenomena that consistently occur with visual stimuli: the inverse duration effect, which means that the longer a stimulus lasts, the briefer its persistence is after stimulus offset, and the inverse intensity effect, which describes how the more intense the stimulus is, the shorter the persistence lasts. These effects happen unless the stimuli are so intense that they produce after images. This is thought to occur in conjunction with neural persistence.

Informational persistence is what makes up iconic memory. Informational persistence has distinctly different properties than visible or neural persistence, as both visible and neural persistence rely heavily upon the visual cortex. Informational persistence does not rely as heavily on the visual cortex, as it converts the visual display to abstract ideas and information, instead of a simple image.

This same study also concluded that iconic memory is not directly tied to the processes of the visual system. The study suggests that iconic memory is post-categorical, and occurs after stimulus identification. The stimulus identification is an automatic process but does not provide episodic properties. In short, the new view is that physical stimulus must be temporarily attached to a representation of the visual stimulus in semantic memory. This temporarily attached information is what constitutes iconic memory.

Temporal Characteristics

Iconic memory decays rapidly after the visual stimulus is no longer present. Iconic memory is regarded by most to allow for perceptual integration of two or more images, even if separated by a brief period of time. Many studies have been conducted to determine the duration of iconic memory, usually after the stimulus has been removed (called stimulus offset).

However, a new study has come to light in which it was hypothesized that iconic memory has a set temporal property starting from the onset of the visual stimulus, regardless of how long the stimulus is displayed. This would account for the inverse action of the iconic memory lasting for a briefer period of time with longer duration. The previous studies were measuring the duration of iconic memory from stimulus offset, but the new study measures it from stimulus onset.

The results of the new study seem conclusive, showing that regardless of how long visual stimulus is displayed iconic memory has a fairly set duration. Most often the duration of iconic memory is less than one second. Iconic memory is extremely brief. Only when iconic memory is put into context in the brain and relegated to short term memory does the information persist beyond the single second associated with visual short term memory.

Change Detection

One of the findings that has come up in repeated research about iconic memory is the inability to detect changes in a visual field. Visual change detection has been evaluated in many experiments eager to determine the duration of iconic memory through change detection tests. The subject is given an array of items, then a brief time later, given the same array slightly changed, and asked to determine the change. In most cases, the subjects are unable to determine the change that was made. These findings suggest that change detection is far more difficult than might have originally been expected, and may not be a part of the memory tasks associated with iconic memory and visible changes.

A new study set out to determine why this happens. The common thought is that a serial search of all of the objects is necessary to determine the change, and the iconic memory of the first array fades before that can take place. However, the new study found that it is much more likely that iconic memory can only hold one array at a time. When the new array is presented, it overwrites the information from the first array. Because the memory tasks associated with iconic memory are so brief, it stands to reason that the visual cortex and brain&rsquos processing centers do not hold onto a large number of visual presentations, in order to engage in visual change detection.

Iconic memory is so brief and fleeting that it can only hold a small, limited amount of information for an infinitesimal amount of time. The only way to increase the memory of a visual array is to focus one's attention on the array, which moves the information from iconic memory to short-term memory. Because the short-term memory bank requires attention, focusing in on a visual display and trying to discern information from that display shifts the mechanism being used from the iconic memory researched by George Sperling to the banks of an individual&rsquos short-term memory.

Transfer To Durable Storage

Many studies have been done to determine the rate of transfer of information from iconic memory to durable storage, or short-term and long-term memory. Most studies have found that it takes significant attention to move information from iconic memory to durable storage. Without focused attention, the iconic memory fades rapidly and is not put into a context that commits it to more durable memory. The amount of information that can be moved from iconic memory to durable storage is limited by the capacity of the short-term memory and the availability of iconic memory. Change blindness limits some of the information that is stored, as iconic memory is not able to detect change.

Another study done by the NIH showed that iconic memory, with attention, could be transferred to visual working memory, which lasts several seconds. Visual working memory is a function of short-term memory. This memory in turn only lasts seconds, less than a full minute, without being transferred again to long-term memory. Memory and visible persistence are entirely reliant upon iconic memory and visual working memory without these two banks to briefly act as a store of visual information, perceptions and images would not move to short-term or long-term memory.

The Brain And Iconic Memory

The primary part of the brain that is involved in iconic memory is the occipital lobe, which is home to the primary visual cortex. The occipital lobe and its primary visual cortex are responsible for processing and regulating visual information. The visual stimulus travels from the visual system of the eyes to the occipital lobe, where it is stored for mere milliseconds, before being discarded or transferred to the temporal lobe. The hippocampus within the temporal lobe is primarily responsible for then converting that memory from short-term to long-term memory.

The Path Of Visual Memory

The path of visual memory is one that is traveled extremely quickly. Iconic memory, visual working memory, and short-term memory have limited capacities and brief temporal characteristics, some of them housed within the primary visual cortex. Only by moving information all the way through the process to long-term memory can visual stimulus be remembered for more than a few minutes iconic memory requires attention and focus to transfer information to longer-term memory banks.

Presentation Of Stimuli

The first thing that must happen, of course, is for visual stimuli to be presented. Visual stimulus is processed by the visual system and the occipital lobe. Automatic recognition occurs, and it is then placed into iconic memory. This happens very quickly&mdashthe magical number is said to be as little as one second in iconic memory, and less than 1 minute in visual working memory.

Iconic Memory

Once the stimulus has initially been presented, iconic memory begins. The automatic recognition of the visual stimulus display is processed by the occipital lobe and transferred to iconic memory, where it remains for only milliseconds before being transferred to visual working memory or being discarded.

Visual Working Memory

From iconic memory, the information moves to visual working memory. This is like an extremely short term memory in vision and visual stimuli. Visual working memory can last for several seconds. In order for information to move to visual working memory, the subject must have focused attention on the visual display or set of information.

Short Term Memory

The short-term memory lasts only a few minutes and has limited capacity. With focused attention and interrelated memories and thought, visual working memory can be transferred to short-term memory. There, the information remains for several minutes before being discarded or being shuffled along to long-term memory.

Long Term Memory

Long-term memory can be a confusing term. When most people think of long-term memory, they think of things that they remember for years. However, long-term memory doesn't necessarily last forever in human neuroscience. It does decay over time, depending on how frequently you access the information. If information from iconic memory is to last beyond a few minutes, it needs to be stored in long-term memory.

Getting Help With Failing Memory

If you find that you can't remember things that you have seen, you might be suffering from early memory loss in visual areas. Early memory loss usually begins with inadequate short-term memory, including the recall of a visual display gathered through iconic and visual working memory. If you see something and within a few minutes have forgotten what you have seen, even if you paid close attention, there could be some problems with your short-term memory, as the role of iconic memory is to receive visual input and either transfer it to visual working memory (which then goes on to short-term memory banks) or discard it.

Memory loss is important to catch early, and there are a lot of things you can do to help make the process easier. Contacting a therapist or psychologist is your first step. They can give you a memory test to determine the depth of your memory loss. They can also give you the next steps necessary to identify potential memory loss, and tell you what to watch for if your memory begins to fail.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):

What is iconic memory in psychology?

Iconic memory is a term coined by George Sperling. Sperling identified the process of an entire visual movement from a single, immediate impression via iconic memory, to visual working memory, to short-term memory. These classic initial experiments identified iconic memory as the first threshold in the integration of visual information. Iconic memory, then, is a gateway, of sorts, for the processes involved in storing short-term memory. A visual stimulus offsets the brain, which triggers iconic memory. Iconic memory holds onto the image for 1 second or less, before sending the image to the brain, which quickly identifies whether the image is important or unimportant. Without iconic memory, taking in information and quickly discarding it, the human brain would be continually overwhelmed by visual stimuli. Iconic memory is a sorting machine, essentially, filtering through all of the images taken in on a daily basis.

What is iconic echoic memory?

Iconic memory and echoic memory are actually two different types of memory intake. Iconic memory is involved in eye movements, and entire visual intake, while echoic memory focuses on auditory intake and sorts information based upon auditory receptors. Like iconic memory, echoic memory is short, and does not necessarily route all incoming information immediately to short-term or long-term memory for extended storage.

How long does iconic memory last for?

Iconic memory is incredibly brief, lasting 1 second or less. This is, in part, why change blindness is observed in iconic memory iconic memory is not used to store a great deal of visual information over a long period of time, so iconic memory is prone to change blindness, or the inability to identify small changes made to a scene. Iconic memory is often linked to visual working memory, which is not as prone to change blindness, and is the part of memory in change detection that can actually last several seconds&mdashlong enough to display the ability to detect change.

Why is iconic memory important?

Although iconic memory is known for change blindness and is used in a pre attentive state, it is a vital part of the primary visual cortex and its functions. Through inadvertent or unintentional eye movements, the human mind takes in a veritable cascade of visual information, which must be processed via the primary visual cortex and either discarded or rerouted to the next channels of visual memory. From this primary visual intake center (iconic memory), memories are either deemed no longer necessary and discarded, or shuffled along to the next destination: visual working memory.

A type of memory that struggles with change detection tasks might not seem to be terribly important, but it plays an absolutely essential role in neurological function. Being constantly overwhelmed by visual stimuli could mean a loss of general brain function if a large portion of the brain was constantly focused on filtering and sorting through visual input, other functions would have to be put on the back burner. Iconic memory takes over these functions, and performs the task of sorting through and removing unnecessary information.

What best describes iconic memory?

Iconic memory is the type of memory involved in the brief and rapid intake of visual stimuli. Iconic memory in change detection is weak, at best, but performs an important function: sorting through and filtering incoming visual stimuli. In the initial studies regarding iconic memory, there were many different tactics researchers used to learn more about the condition, including measuring the intake of visual information through both stimulus onset and stimulus offset. What was discovered is that iconic memory is a rapid visual intake center, which holds onto an image for 1 second or less, before either discarding the image, storing information about the visual stimuli, or sending the image along to longer-term memory centers, such as visual working memory and short-term memory.

Iconic memory is also interesting for its unreliability in recall through visual stimulus alone studies required participants to view an image with a set of information, then asked them to recall that information from iconic memory. Only ¼ to 1/5 of the given information was able to be retrieved, suggesting that iconic memory was of little use in retaining information. Conversely, when a partial report procedure was produced, and researchers required participants to recall information alongside additional stimuli (most often auditory), they were able to offer a partial report, with as much as 75% of information retained. These studies were fascinating frontiers in human neuroscience, as they provided a window into how sensory integration is used to recall information, as was demonstrated in partial report procedures.

What is iconic memory example?

Iconic memory is the shortest-term visual memory identified in human functioning. Iconic memory includes the brief images taken in by human eyes, which are then discarded or moved along for further processing and storage. While there are many different types of storage that are responsible for processing information, iconic memory is unique, in that it is both brief and rapid: iconic memory stores information for less than one second, and either discards the information, or passes it on to the next step in memory processing. Iconic memory is also known for its ties to partial report procedure, wherein a researcher required participants to view a visual stimulus alongside an additional sensory stimulus, and recall information. Iconic memory cannot provide a complete report (information recall without other sense involvement), but can provide a partial report (information recalled with other sense involvement).

A simple example of iconic memory is this: take a moment to look at an image&mdashfor no more than 2-5 seconds&mdashand close your eyes. Can you recall an image of the object you were looking at? The image will likely fade within a single second or less. This is iconic memory. Iconic memory examples within a partial report paradigm include: view an image while chewing a piece of gum. Again, view the image for no longer than 2-5 seconds, before closing your eyes (but continuing to chew the gum). Are you able to more readily recall the image you viewed while chewing gum? If so, you have demonstrated iconic memory within a partial report paradigm.

What's the difference between echoic memory and iconic memory?

Echoic memory is a form of auditory intake and processing, while iconic memory is a form of visual intake and processing. Although they are two separate types of sensory intake and memory processing, there is a situation in which they can be fused: partial report procedure. Partial report procedure can be used to deliver a partial report, or a recollection of visual stimulus alongside auditory stimulus. Perhaps the simplest way to exemplify both iconic and echoic memory in action is to view an image&mdasha painting of a bird, perhaps&mdashwhile listening to a series of sounds, such as three distinct notes on the piano. Each employs iconic and echoic memory, respectively, but aids each other in effective recall.

Which description of iconic memory is accurate?

The most effective description of iconic memory is a simple one: iconic memory is the first stage in visual intake and processing. Although talk of partial report, complete report, stimulus onset, stimulus offset, and the effects of masking can all convolute and confuse the basic functions of iconic memory, the basis of iconic memory is fairly straightforward: the human brain takes in a great deal of visual stimuli on a moment-to-moment basis, much of it unnecessary to recall. Iconic memory takes in these images&mdashthe images of a couch as you walk past, the sight of a fly buzzing in front of you, or the impression of a shadow to the left of you on your walk&mdashand rapidly sorts them either to be discarded as unnecessary information or input, or files them into the next step of visual processing, the visual working memory. From there, images are either discarded or shuffled into short-term memory, where they are once more sorted to either be discarded or sent to long-term memory. If long-term memory is the final destination for a given image, iconic memory is the train ticket purchased to get there.

How can I improve my iconic memory?

Iconic memory is not necessarily an impulse or &ldquomuscle&rdquo you can &ldquoexercise.&rdquo Instead, iconic memory is the involuntary initial step in visual processing. Although memory can be strengthened with regular use and intentional practice, iconic memory is not actually a storage site, or a type of memory bank instead, it is the gatekeeper in visual processing. Images are taken in via iconic memory, routed to the visual cortex, and deemed either unnecessary or worthy of storage. Iconic memory can be used briefly to recall a small amount of information or, when viewed in conjunction with other sensory stimuli, recall a larger amount of information through a partial report paradigm. Partial report allows people to deliver more information, but is still subject to the rapid-fire nature of iconic memory.

Although you cannot quite improve your iconic memory in the same way you might work to improve your short term or long term memory, you can regularly practice partial report procedure to encourage your ability to deliver a partial report. To successfully enlist the partial report paradigm, view a given visual stimulus while engaging another sense, such as listening to a specific song or sound, or chewing on a cracker. When trying to recall the image you are in search of, enlist that same sensory stimulus, and you should be able to deliver a partial report, or a greater portion of the visual stimulus taken in via your iconic memory.


Editor's Note: To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Society for Neuroscience, the editors of the Journal of Neuroscience asked several neuroscientists who have been active in the society to reflect on some of the changes they have seen in their respective fields over the last 40 years.

This work was supported by the Medical Research Service of the Department of Veterans Affairs, National Institute of Mental Health Grant 24600, and the Metropolitan Life Foundation. I thank Cristina Alberini, Annette Jeneson, Stefan Leutgeb, Matthew Shapiro, Christine Smith, Ryan Squire, and John Wixted for their helpful comments.


The study of working memory has long been an area of interest for researchers due to its ubiquity in daily life, its close links to many high-level cognitive functions, psychopathologies [1] and the large individual variability present in both performance and capacity [2]–[4]. The storage mechanism and capacity limits of visual working memory have been and remain controversial [2], [5]–[8]. Likewise, the neural correlates of visual working memory have stirred up considerable debate, with some studies reporting sustained activity in high-level neural structures [9]–[11] while others, more recently, reporting early-level visual cortex [12], [13]. Behavioural studies support the involvement of early visual cortex, as they suggests that visual working memory can maintain visual information at a resolution typically only observed in early visual cortex [14]–[18].

There have been suggestions that visual working memory may involve mental imagery [19], [20], such propositions dovetail nicely with the visual spatial sketchpad component of composite theories of working memory [21], [22]. Interestingly the neural correlates of imagery have provoked a debate similar to the one in the visual working memory literature. Some neuroimaging studies have found no significant increase in neural activity in the early visual areas during imagery tasks [23]–[28]. More recently however, neuroimaging studies have found that early areas of the visual cortex are activated during imagery tasks as well as later visual areas [29]–[31]. Studies employing transcranial magnetic stimulation over early visual cortex further show that disruption of visual cortical activity can impair imagery tasks [32] and recent behavioural work has provided strong evidence that visual imagery is contingent on activity in early visual cortex [33], [34]. Interference style tasks also provide evidence that imagery may be involved in maintaining visual information in memory with some studies indicating that visual interference in the form of irrelevant pictures and dynamic visual noise deteriorates performance on both visual working memory and imagery tasks [20], [35]–[40]. However other work has failed to show these effects, with some studies finding no effects of dynamic visual noise on either working memory and/or imagery tasks [41]–[44].

Subjective reports of strategies employed during visual working memory may also provide insight into the role of imagery during visual working memory. Subjective reports from participants performing visual working memory tasks sometimes suggest a strategy that involves creating a detailed mental image to help performance [13], [45], [46]. These reports suggest that some participants may engage in the effortful generation of internal visual representations of the remembered items. The participant's descriptions are synonymous with definitions of mental imagery, potentially implicating imagery as a possible cognitive strategy used to solve visual working memory tasks.

Since the time of Sir Francis Galton [47] it has been noted that individuals differ in their self-reports of mental imagery ability. Some people report that they experience very intense, vivid images akin to actually seeing the item, whereas others report no ‘image’ per se, instead an individual's mental information seems to take on a more abstract, phonologically based feeling [48].

If large individual differences in both visual working memory and mental imagery are common [3], [29], [47], [49] and individuals report using imagery-like strategies during visual working memory tasks [13], [45], [46], and both involve activity in early visual cortex [13], [50], it follows that imagery may be an important cognitive element in working memory tasks.

However, studies examining the role of visual imagery in visual working memory tasks have produced mixed results [51]. Some studies have reported positive correlations [46], [52]–[54] whilst others have found no or negative relationships [51], [55], [56]. Despite this work, the exact nature of the relationship between visual imagery and working memory still remains unclear.

Here we capitalized on a new method to assess imagery, a visual phenomenon called binocular rivalry. This phenomenon involves presenting two different patterns, one to each eye, resulting in one pattern reaching awareness while the other is suppressed. A study by Pearson, Clifford & Tong (2008) found that when individuals imagined one of two rivalry patterns, that pattern had a higher probability of being dominant during a subsequent brief rivalry presentation. In fact, longer periods of imagery led to stronger bias effects, and these effects were highly specific to the orientation and location of the imagined pattern. Interestingly, when imagery was performed in the presence of a uniform illuminant background these effects tended to be weaker as a function of the background luminance [33], [57]. A recent study by Pearson, Rademaker & Tong (in press) has shown that subjective ratings of imagery vividness on a trial-by-trial basis predict the subsequent perceptual effect on binocular rivalry (but not on catch trials), while ratings of effort do not. Likewise off-line questionnaire ratings of imagery vividness tended to predict the strength of mental imagery as measured with binocular rivalry. This finding is important for the current work as it demonstrates that imagery as assessed using binocular rivalry is both a measure of its low-level sensory components and metacognitive sensations of vividness.

We utilized imagery's bias effect on subsequent binocular rivalry to investigate the role of imagery in different types of short-term visual memory (i.e. visual working memory and iconic memory). We show that individuals with strong imagery perform better in visual working memory tasks than individuals with poor imagery. However, imagery strength was unrelated to performance in iconic memory. In addition, we capitalized on the known ability of background luminance to interfere with imagery mechanisms to show that good imagers, but not poor imagers, tend to use imagery as a strategy for visual working memory tasks. This pattern only held for visual working memory and not for working memory of number strings, suggesting that luminance was attenuating sensory-based imagery and not general working memory mechanisms. These results provide compelling new evidence that imagery is a component of visual working memory for good imagers, whereas poor imagers likely rely on a different strategy. A dichotomy in cognitive strategies may help explain the diversity of results in visual working memory studies.

Watch the video: How does your memory work? Head Squeeze (May 2022).


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