Visual long-term memory has a massive storage capacity for object details

Brady, Konkle, Alvarez, & Oliva

One of the major lessons of memory research has been that human memory is fallible, imprecise, and subject to interference. Thus, although observers can remember thousands of images, it is widely assumed that these memories lack detail. Contrary to this assumption, here we show that long-term memory is capable of storing a massive number of objects with details from the image. Participants viewed pictures of 2,500 objects over the course of 5.5 h. Afterward, they were shown pairs of images and indicated which of the two they had seen. The previously viewed item could be paired with either an object from a novel category, an object of the same basic-level category, or the same object in a different state or pose. Performance in each of these conditions was re- markably high (92%, 88%, and 87%, respectively), suggesting that participants successfully maintained detailed representations of thousands of images. These results have implications for cognitive models, in which capacity limitations impose a primary computa- tional constraint (e.g., models of object recognition), and pose a challenge to neural models of memory storage and retrieval, which must be able to account for such a large and detailed storage capacity.

Brady, T. F., Konkle, T., Alvarez, G. A. and Oliva, A. (2008). Visual long-term memory has a massive storage capacity for object details. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. vol 105 (38), 14325-14329.