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Psychol Sci. 2004 Feb;15(2):106-11.

The capacity of visual short-term memory is set both by visual information load and by number of objects.

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1
Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA. geoalvarez@wjh.harvard.edu

Abstract

Previous research has suggested that visual short-term memory has a fixed capacity of about four objects. However, we found that capacity varied substantially across the five stimulus classes we examined, ranging from 1.6 for shaded cubes to 4.4 for colors (estimated using a change detection task). We also estimated the information load per item in each class, using visual search rate. The changes we measured in memory capacity across classes were almost exactly mirrored by changes in the opposite direction in visual search rate (r2=.992 between search rate and the reciprocal of memory capacity). The greater the information load of each item in a stimulus class (as indicated by a slower search rate), the fewer items from that class one can hold in memory. Extrapolating this linear relationship reveals that there is also an upper bound on capacity of approximately four or five objects. Thus, both the visual information load and number of objects impose capacity limits on visual short-term memory.

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