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Saturday, 13 September 2008 23:23

MIT study: Humans able to remember great details for long time

Massachusetts Institute of Technology study shows that humans are able to remember a great amount of details over a long period, even though most scientists thought such abilities were not possible.

The article “Visual long-term memory has a massive storage capacity for object details” is summarized in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Its authors are: Timothy F. Brady, Talia Konkle, George A. Alvarez, and Aude Oliva, all from the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

The researchers contend it is widely believed by the scientific community that the human long-term memory is “fallible, imprecise, and subject to interference.”

Such beliefs include the contention that humans are exposed to thousands of images over a long period, but most of these images cannot be retained in much detail over a long period of time, even though long-term memory can retain massive numbers of items.

Their paper states, “We have all had the experience of watching a movie trailer and having the overwhelming feeling that we can see much more than we could possibly report later. This subjective experience is consistent with research on human memory, which suggests that as information passes from sensory memory to short-term memory and to long-term memory, the amount of perceptual detail stored decreases."

They add, "For example, within a few hundred milliseconds of perceiving an image, sensory memory confers a truly photographic experience, enabling you to report any of the image details. Seconds later, short-term memory enables you to report only sparse details from the image. Days later, you might be able to report only the gist of what you had seen “

The researchers decided to test whether this belief is true or not.

Please read page two.

Thus, within the abstract to their paper, the researchers state, “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.”

The researchers studied subjects who were asked to observe images of 2,500 real-world objects for three seconds each, over a 5.5-hour period.

Some of the "real-world" objects are shown on the second page (pdf file) of their paper.

After this initial period, the researchers asked the participants to look at additional objects, but this time as pairs of images. The objects previously viewed might 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.”

In all of these three cases, the researchers found that the performance of the subjects were “remarkably high” with respect to their ability to maintain detailed representation of the images.

The ability of the subjects to remember the objects were 92%, 88%, and 87%, respectively (as stated two paragraphs earlier).

One of the researchers, MIT cognitive neuroscientist Timothy Brady, stated "People had never tested whether people could remember this much detail about this many objects. Nobody actually pushed it this far." [Fox News: “Humans have astonishing memories, study finds”]

Please see the conclusions of their paper on page three.

Their paper concludes by saying, “The information capacity of human memory has an important role in cognitive and neural models of memory, recognition, and categorization, because models of these processes implicitly or explicitly make claims about the level of detail stored in memory.”

And, “The upper bound on the size of visual long-term memory has not been reached, even with previous attempts to push the quantity of items …, or the attempt of the present study to push both the quantity and fidelity. Here, we raise only the lower bound of what is possible, by showing that visual long-term memory representations can contain not only gist information but also details sufficient to discriminate between exemplars and states.”

Finally, “We think that examining the fidelity of memory representations is an important addition to existing frameworks of visual long-term memory capacity. Whereas in everyday life we may often fail to encode the details of objects or scenes …, our results suggest that under conditions where we attempt to encode such details, we are capable of succeeding.”

The researchers state that is it important for humans to remember visual information because the evolution of species depend in some part with being able to develop “more complicated cognition and behavioral repertoires involving the gradual enlargement of the long-term memory capacities of the brain.”

In addition, they say the brain’s capacity to store perceptual information may likely be a key factor in the ability to perform abstract reasoning.


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