[If you cannot see the flash video below, you can click here for a high quality mp4 video.]
Interviewees: Aude Oliva and Timothy Brady,
The Devil is in the Details
If you’re tired of hearing about memory loss, there’s some encouraging research from Massachusetts Institute of Technology http://web.mit.edu/ about how good people’s visual memory really is.
Psychologist Aude Oliva and graduate student Timothy Brady found inspiration for their study in Lionel Standing’s famous research conducted in the early 1970s. Standing’s study demonstrated that after viewing 10,000 images, people could look at pairs of images and remember which one they had seen with 83-percent accuracy. While it proved that people could recall large numbers of images, the study did not test how much detail within the pictures people could retain.
Also on ScienCentral
That’s what Oliva wanted to test. Her team asked volunteers, aged 18 to 35, to participate in a grueling memory test. Over the course of five hours, each volunteer watched a monitor as approximately 3,000 images of common objects–like corkscrews, donuts, and cell phones–appeared for just three seconds each. The researchers told volunteers to try to remember as many details as they could.
After a 20-minute break, they were shown pairs of images and had to determine if they had seen them before. However there was more to it than in Standing’s study. Volunteers had to remember very specific details of the images to get the answer correct. For example they had to determine not only whether they had seen a cell phone, but also whether it was open or closed.
Brady says before the study was conducted, the four members of the research team had to make written predictions about how well the volunteers would perform. While they all thought that volunteers would be able to remember, for instance, that they had seen a donut, none of them were betting that the volunteers would remember the small details.
“We all agreed that pretty much nobody would be able to remember all of the details of all of the objects,” says Brady. "But in fact they were able to do that."
Results showed that the volunteers were right almost 90-percent of the time.
If you’re thinking that the volunteers were MIT students and probably had a better memory than the average person, think again. Oliva says they were members of the local community from all walks of life. If these findings surprise you, imagine what the researchers thought. After all, if they had placed bets on their predictions, they all would have lost.
“Certainly it has changed my views about what’s possible in memory,” says Brady.
Tip For Better Memory
But if people’s memory for detailed information is so good, why do most people forget simple things like where they parked their car? Oliva says one key is making an effort to really look. After all, in the study the researchers instructed volunteers to remember as much as they could.
“Pay attention to the visual details. Pay attention where you put your keys, where you park your car,” advises Oliva.
She says spending those few extra moments to concentrate on details and use your visual memory could spare you from the many annoying lapses of memory. Next, Oliva plans to conduct brain imaging studies to see how the brain encodes those massive amounts of detail into memory.
PUBLICATION: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, September 19, 2008
AUTHORS: Timothy Brady, Talia Konkle, George Alvarez, and Aude Oliva
RESEARCH FUNDED BY: National Science Foundation