Your Memory Is Bigger and Better Than Scientists Expected

  by  |  December 3rd, 2008  |  Published in All, Brain & Psychology, Featured

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Good news about our brains—turns out our visual memory is bigger and better than previously thought. The study authors even offer a tip to help improve your memory, and keep you from losing your keys.

[If you cannot see the flash video below, you can click here for a high quality mp4 video.]

Interviewees: Aude Oliva and Timothy Brady,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
Jennifer Ramirez, Brooklyn, NY, David Greenlie, Poughkeepsie, NY,
Mark SmolenEast Meadow, NY
– Produced by Sunita Reed– Edited by Sunita Reed and James Eagan
Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc.
image courtesy: Podermanski

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 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.

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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

Elsewhere on the Web:
NIH information on memory
The Whole Brain Atlas
Neuroscience for Kids: Memory

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  1. John Jones says:

    December 3rd, 2008 at 9:29 pm (#)

    Gee Idunno about that! I beg to differ!


  2. ray says:

    December 3rd, 2008 at 11:13 pm (#)

    Holy crap, that lady being interviewed on the street has a weird baritone voice.

  3. joe says:

    December 3rd, 2008 at 11:32 pm (#)

    wow, what insight!

    If you want to remember, then all you have to do is “pay attention to the visual details” according to the MIT researcher.

    Hmmm….pay attention and then you will remember better.

    It takes research from MIT to tell me THAT – pay attention.

    My elementary school teacher taught me about that…wait, I tell my 3 year old daughter “to pay attention”…

    Maybe my 3 year will be smart enough to go to MIT one day!

  4. Federico Suarez says:

    December 4th, 2008 at 7:40 am (#)

    Somehow this behaviour reminds me a speed reading method called phtotoreading, where the key to remeber the thing you have reading, depends on your intent.

  5. LIBS says:

    December 4th, 2008 at 8:44 am (#)

    Hey after reading this article, it hit me..the authors’ quote “…pay attention to the details..”. I read that off of a fortune cookie..way to go MIT grads!!!!!!

  6. Komb says:

    December 4th, 2008 at 9:14 am (#)

    I always forget where I put my keys, next time I’ll pay more attention to details of where I put them.

  7. Michael Toth says:

    December 4th, 2008 at 1:56 pm (#)

    DUH! This study was done years ago – think subliminal! Try this; give them books with 3000 pictures – let them have books for 1 week – take books back – wait 1 week – then test!! Now do same tests in different countries/geographic locations – the results of those tests would merit some close scrutiny.

  8. Aview ToAkill says:

    December 4th, 2008 at 3:55 pm (#)

    I remember this article from another web site.

  9. Michael says:

    December 4th, 2008 at 5:49 pm (#)

    Its that whole drift between quantity and quality. We use a mere fraction of our brain’s power. Maybe if the world offered us more relevant, insightful information on a consistent basis, it would be worth immediate (brain) registration and process? Still, the best comparison I can give is the internet — what percentage of search engine results are “disinteresting” due to time and mind numbing distractions such as over-advertising, lack of incentive, etc? Along those lines, and along the line of our cranium, I would like to point out a very interesting website: Great article!

  10. airweb says:

    December 5th, 2008 at 4:30 pm (#)

    Our must cerebral eat nut,please

  11. lenny says:

    December 6th, 2008 at 1:48 am (#)

    Werner Erhard’s definition of the mind, from the early seventies: “A linear arrangement of multi-sensory total records of now.”

    It’s all in there, it’s just a matter of filing and accessing.
    Of course, that includes everything you ever dreamed or imagined.

  12. SWIconics says:

    December 7th, 2008 at 10:02 am (#)

    This is all very well, but how would the experiments turn out with geriatric subjects?

  13. zhensen says:

    December 23rd, 2008 at 11:19 am (#)

    is this brain working stuff real ???

  14. кceня says:

    August 24th, 2009 at 5:00 am (#)

    Да, было бы смешно, если б не было так грустно …

  15. Kindza says:

    September 21st, 2009 at 11:03 am (#)

    It would be desirable to believe that researches of a brain of the person will allow to win many illnesses force of the person!!!

  16. Deripet says:

    September 26th, 2009 at 7:25 am (#)

    Fully agree with you, about a week ago wrote about the same in his blog!

  17. pop stars life says:

    November 19th, 2009 at 7:02 am (#)

    Aha, now it is clear … And then I just not very much and did not understand where is the link with the very title …

  18. allinfosrtoy says:

    December 8th, 2009 at 12:29 am (#)

    Very interesting view. I would still hear the views of experts on the subject.

  19. Newesrit says:

    January 2nd, 2010 at 2:19 am (#)

    Article written ochentochno. In other words, and not say.

  20. Expert-biz says:

    March 18th, 2010 at 1:17 am (#)

    It has long been searching for similar information on the Internet, and found only you.

  21. Valentin says:

    March 20th, 2010 at 1:32 am (#)

    Country somehow, I doubt that’s true. I need to paint in more detail.

  22. Rinaty says:

    March 23rd, 2010 at 1:49 am (#)

    An interesting opportunity to learn something new and useful

  23. Deril says:

    March 28th, 2010 at 1:43 am (#)

    Cognitive. I would like to hear more expert opinion on the subject

  24. Ladies says:

    April 1st, 2010 at 8:27 am (#)

    An interesting interpretation of this information, I do not think it can help users

  25. Smartlady says:

    April 4th, 2010 at 2:01 am (#)

    I think that this issue is very difficult to understand

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    June 11th, 2012 at 6:43 am (#)

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