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Mem Cognit. 1997 Jul;25(4):484-91.

The representation of nonstructural information in visual memory: evidence from image combination.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, Lancaster University, England.


Two experiments investigated the differential representation of the figure and ground of a picture in visual short-term and long-term memory. It is known (Hitch, Brandimonte, & Walker, 1995) that subjects find it more difficult to combine mental images of two separately presented pictures in order to identify a novel form when the two pictures are incongruent in color (i.e., when a black-on-white line drawing has to be combined with a white-on-black drawing). In the present experiments, the figures were depicted in solid form to allow color congruity to be varied independently for figure and ground. Results showed a clear impairment in image combination when the to-be-combined figures were incongruent in color (black-on-gray and white-on-gray) but not when their grounds were incongruently colored (gray-on-black and gray-on-white). In this way, image combination was seen to be supported by a representation of the object depicted in the picture rather than by a literal representation of the picture itself (i.e., a pictorial code). In line with previous findings, the same representation was seen to support image combination based on short-term memory (Experiment 1) and long-term memory (Experiment 2), provided that in the latter case verbal recoding was precluded. When verbal recoding was allowed, image combination based on long-term memory was insensitive to color congruity, implying the involvement of a more abstract structural representation.

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