Compression in Visual Working Memory: Using Statistical Regularities to Form More Efficient Memory Representations

Brady, Konkle, & Alvarez

The information that individuals can hold in working memory is quite limited, but researchers have typically studied this capacity using simple objects or letter strings with no associations between them. However, in the real world there are strong associations and regularities in the input. In an information theoretic sense, regularities introduce redundancies that make the input more compressible. The current study shows that observers can take advantage of these redundancies, enabling them to remember more items in working memory. In 2 experiments, covariance was introduced between colors in a display so that over trials some color pairs were more likely to appear than other color pairs. Observers remembered more items from these displays than from displays where the colors were paired randomly. The improved memory performance cannot be explained by simply guessing the high-probability color pair, suggesting that observers formed more efficient representations to remember more items. Further, as observers learned the regularities, their working memory performance improved in a way that is quantitatively predicted by a Bayesian learning model and optimal encoding scheme. These results suggest that the underlying capacity of the individuals’ working memory is unchanged, but the information they have to remember can be encoded in a more compressed fashion.

Brady, T. F., Konkle, T., & Alvarez, G. A. (2009). Compression in visual short-term memory: using statistical regularities to form more efficient memory representations. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 138(4), 487-502.