Why Are Some Images Are More Memorable Than Others?

Summary: A new study reveals that the brain prioritizes remembering images that are harder to explain. Researchers used a computational model and behavioral experiments to show that scenes difficult for the model to reconstruct were more memorable to participants.

This finding helps explain why certain visual experiences stick in our memory. The study could also inform the development of AI memory systems.

Key Facts:

  • Memory Formation: The brain tends to remember images that are difficult to interpret or explain.
  • Computational Model: A model addressing visual signal compression and reconstruction was used.
  • AI Implications: Insights could aid in creating more efficient memory systems for artificial intelligence.

Source: Yale

The human brain filters through a flood of experiences to create specific memories. Why do some of the experiences in this deluge of sensory information become “memorable,” while most are discarded by the brain?

A computational model and behavioral study developed by Yale scientists suggests a new clue to this age-old question, they report in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

This shows a woman's eyes.
The Yale team found that the harder it was for the computational model to reconstruct an image, the more likely the image would be remembered by the participants. Credit: Neuroscience News

“The mind prioritizes remembering things that it is not able to explain very well,” said Ilker Yildirim, an assistant professor of psychology in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and senior author of the paper. “If a scene is predictable, and not surprising, it might be ignored.”

For example, a person may be briefly confused by the presence of a fire hydrant in a remote natural environment, making the image difficult to interpret, and therefore more memorable. “Our study explored the question of which visual information is memorable by pairing a computational model of scene complexity with a behavioral study,” said Yildirim.

For the study, which was led by Yildirim and John Lafferty, the John C. Malone Professor of Statistics and Data Science at Yale, the researchers developed a computational model that addressed two steps in memory formation — the compression of visual signals and their reconstruction.

Based on this model, they designed a series of experiments in which people were asked if they remembered specific images from a sequence of natural images shown in rapid succession. The Yale team found that the harder it was for the computational model to reconstruct an image, the more likely the image would be remembered by the participants.

“We used an AI model to try to shed light on perception of scenes by people — this understanding could help in the development of more efficient memory systems for AI in the future,” said Lafferty, who is also the director of the Center for Neurocomputation and Machine Intelligence at the Wu Tsai Institute at Yale. 

Former Yale graduate students Qi Lin (Psychology) and Zifan Lin (Statistics and Data Science) are co-first authors of the paper.

About this visual memory research news

Author: Bill Hathaway
Source: Yale
Contact: Bill Hathaway – Yale
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Closed access.
Images with harder-to-reconstruct visual representations leave stronger memory traces” by Ilker Yildirim et al. Nature Human Behavior


Images with harder-to-reconstruct visual representations leave stronger memory traces

Much of what we remember is not because of intentional selection, but simply a by-product of perceiving.

This raises a foundational question about the architecture of the mind: how does perception interface with and influence memory?

Here, inspired by a classic proposal relating perceptual processing to memory durability, the level-of-processing theory, we present a sparse coding model for compressing feature embeddings of images, and show that the reconstruction residuals from this model predict how well images are encoded into memory.

In an open memorability dataset of scene images, we show that reconstruction error not only explains memory accuracy, but also response latencies during retrieval, subsuming, in the latter case, all of the variance explained by powerful vision-only models. We also confirm a prediction of this account with ‘model-driven psychophysics’.

This work establishes reconstruction error as an important signal interfacing perception and memory, possibly through adaptive modulation of perceptual processing.

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