Underutilized Visual Memory: We Recall Less Than We Can

Summary: People often underuse their visual working memory (VWM), typically remembering fewer items than their capacity allows. Participants in the study usually chose to recall just one item at a time, despite being able to remember 3-4 items.

This finding offers new insights into how VWM is utilized in everyday life. Further research is needed to explore the reasons behind this behavior.

Key Facts:

  1. People underuse their visual working memory capacity, recalling fewer items.
  2. Participants typically remembered just one item at a time.
  3. Study provides new insights into real-life usage of VWM.

Source: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

People tend to underutilize their visual working memory (VWM) rather than maxing out its capabilities according to a new study by Ben-Gurion University researchers.

The research was published in Scientific Reports in April.

Visual working memory (VWM) is the ability to keep visual information in mind for a few seconds. It is incredibly important for everyday behavior, however its capacity is strictly limited.

This shows an eye.
In the study, they introduced a new paradigm called the ‘model-reconstruction’ task. Credit: Neuroscience News

Experiments assessing this capacity typically present people with an array of visual items and ask them to remember them for a future memory test. On average, people can only remember around 3-4 items.

A new study by Dr. Yoav Kessler and his student Shalva Kvitelashvili revealed that this number is actually much lower, often just a single item, in cases where people can decide how many items to remember.

These findings shed new light on how VWM is used in real-life situations.

“The use of VWM has been understudied mainly because it has been hard to assess. In addition to our surprising findings about VWM, our experiments open an avenue towards much more research into this fascinating daily occurrence,” says Prof. Kessler. He and Shalva are both members of the Department of Psychology and the School of Brain Sciences and Cognition.

In the study, they introduced a new paradigm called the ‘model-reconstruction’ task.

“In this task, participants are tasked with recreating a ‘target-model’ comprised of a randomized arrangement of colored squares. Initially, the model is presented to participants, after which they proceed to the reconstruction phase. During this phase, they are provided with an empty black frame.

“To recreate the model, participants used the computer mouse to indicate the position and color of each square. Critically, participants can freely review the model by pressing a button and alternate between the model and the reconstruction screen as they wish.

“By tracking the number of item positions after each review of the model, we can estimate the utilization of VWM capacity in each step.

“In addition to our new tasks, the participants were evaluated with a visual change detection task┬áto enable us to examine the correlation between VWM capacity, as measured in standard tasks, and VWM utilization and accuracy in our model reconstruction task,” the two write.

In two experiments, the researchers found that rather than exploiting their full capacity, participants underutilized their VWM. In most cases, they chose to maintain only one item at a time, despite their ability to remember more items. Further studies should examine why people do so, and how this decision affects performance in real-life tasks.

Funding: The study was supported by the Israel Science Foundation (Grant no. 1088/21).

About this visual memory research news

Author: Ehud Zion Waldoks
Source: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Contact: Ehud Zion Waldoks – Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
The voluntary utilization of visual working memory” by Yoav Kessler et al. Scientific Reports


The voluntary utilization of visual working memory

While a vast amount of research has focused on understanding the capacity limits of visual working memory (VWM), little is known about how VWM resources are employed in unforced behavior and how they correlate with individual capacity constraints.

We present a novel, openly available, and easy-to-administer paradigm enabling participants to freely utilize their VWM capacity. Participants had to reconstruct an array of colored squares.

In each trial, they were allowed to alternate between the memory array and the reconstruction screen as many times as they wished, each time choosing how many items to reconstruct. This approach allowed us to estimate the number of utilized items, as well as the accuracy of the reconstruction.

In addition, VWM capacity was measured using a change detection task. In two experiments, we show that participants tend to under-utilize their VWM resources, performing well below their capacity limits.

Surprisingly, while the extent to which participants utilized their VWM was highly reliable, it was uncorrelated with VWM capacity, suggesting that VWM utilization is limited due to strategic considerations rather than capacity limits.

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