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J Vis. 2011 May 26;11(5):4. doi: 10.1167/11.5.4.

A review of visual memory capacity: Beyond individual items and toward structured representations.

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Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA.


Traditional memory research has focused on identifying separate memory systems and exploring different stages of memory processing. This approach has been valuable for establishing a taxonomy of memory systems and characterizing their function but has been less informative about the nature of stored memory representations. Recent research on visual memory has shifted toward a representation-based emphasis, focusing on the contents of memory and attempting to determine the format and structure of remembered information. The main thesis of this review will be that one cannot fully understand memory systems or memory processes without also determining the nature of memory representations. Nowhere is this connection more obvious than in research that attempts to measure the capacity of visual memory. We will review research on the capacity of visual working memory and visual long-term memory, highlighting recent work that emphasizes the contents of memory. This focus impacts not only how we estimate the capacity of the system--going beyond quantifying how many items can be remembered and moving toward structured representations--but how we model memory systems and memory processes.

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