Iconic Memory and Visual Stimuli

closeup of an eye
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People remember things in different ways. Iconic memory involves the memory of visual stimuli. The word iconic refers to an icon, which is a pictorial representation or image. Icon memory is how the brain remembers an image you have seen in the world around you.

For example, look at an object in the room you are in now, and then close your eyes and visualize that object. The image you "see" in your mind is your iconic memory of that visual stimuli. Iconic memory is part of the visual memory system which includes long-term memory and visual short-term memory.

Iconic memory is a type of sensory memory that lasts just milliseconds before fading.

Examples of Iconic Memory

You glance over at a friend's phone as she is scrolling through her Facebook newsfeed. You spot something as she quickly thumbs past it, but you can close your eyes and visualize an image of the item very briefly.

You wake up at night to get a drink of water and turn the kitchen light on. Almost instantly, the bulb burns out and leaves you in darkness, but you can briefly envision what the room looked like from the glimpse you were able to get.

You are driving home one night when a deer bounds across the road in front of you. You can immediately visualize an image of the deer bolting across the road illuminated by your headlights.

Iconic Memory's Role in Change Blindness

Iconic memory is believed to play a role in change blindness, or the failure to detect changes in a visual scene. In experiments, researchers have shown that people struggle to detect differences in two visual scenes when they are interrupted by a brief interval. Researchers suggest that the brief interruption effectively erases iconic memory, making it much more difficult to make comparisons and notice changes.

Sperling's Experiments on Iconic Memory

In 1960, George Sperling performed experiments designed to demonstrate the existence of visual sensory memory. He was also interested in exploring the capacity and duration of this type of memory. In Sperling's experiments, he showed a series of letters on a mirror tachistoscope to participants. These letters were only visible for a fraction of a second, but the subjects were able to recognize at least some of the letters. However, few were able to identify more than four or five letters.

The results of these experiments suggested that the human visual system is capable of retaining information even if the exposure is very brief. The reason so few letters could be recalled, Sperling suggested, was because this type of memory is so fleeting.

In additional experiments, Sperling provided clues to help prompt memories of the letters. Letters were presented in rows, and the participants were asked to recall only the top, middle or bottom rows. The participants were able to remember the prompted letters relatively easily, suggesting it is the limitations of this type of visual memory that prevents us from recalling all of the letters. We see and register them, Sperling believed, but the memories simply fade too quickly to be recalled.

In 1967, psychologist Ulric Neisser labeled this form of quickly fading visual memory as iconic memory.

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3 Sources
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  1. Rensink RA. Limits to the usability of iconic memoryFront Psychol. 2014;5:971. Published 2014 Aug 29. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00971

  2. Pratte MS. Iconic Memories Die a Sudden DeathPsychol Sci. 2018;29(6):877–887. doi:10.1177/0956797617747118

  3. Sperling, G. A brief overview of computational models of spatial, temporal, and feature visual attention. In T. Lachmann & T. Weis (Eds.). Invariances in Human Information Processing. New York, NY: Routledge; 2018:143-182

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