Underutilized Visual Memory: We Recall Less Than We Can

Summary: People often underuse their visual working memory (VWM), typically remembering fewer items than their capacity allows. Study participants typically chose to remember only one item at a time, even though they were able to remember 3 to 4 items.

This discovery offers new insights into how VWM is used in daily life. Further research is needed to explore the reasons for this behavior.


  1. People underuse their visual working memory capacity and remember fewer items.
  2. Participants generally remembered only one item at a time.
  3. The study provides new insights into the actual use of VWM.

Source: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

People tend to underutilize their visual working memory (VWM) rather than optimize its capabilities, according to a new study led by researchers at Ben-Gurion University.

The research was published in Scientific reports in April.

Visual working memory (VWM) is the ability to hold visual information in mind for a few seconds. It is extremely important for daily behavior, but its capacity is strictly limited.

In the study, they introduced a new paradigm called the “model reconstruction” task. Credit: Neuroscience News

Experiments assessing this ability typically present people with a set of visual items and ask them to remember them for a future memory test. On average, people can only remember about 3-4 items.

A new study by Dr. Yoav Kessler and his student Shalva Kvitelashvili found that this number is actually much lower, often just a single item, in cases where people can decide how many items to remember.

These results shed new light on how VWM is used in real-world situations.

“The use of VWM has been understudied primarily because it has been difficult to evaluate. In addition to our surprising findings about VWM, our experiments pave the way for much further research into this fascinating everyday event,” says Professor Kessler. Both he and Shalva are members of the Department of Psychology and the School of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

In the study, they introduced a new paradigm called the “model reconstruction” task.

“In this task, participants must recreate a “target pattern” consisting of a random arrangement of colored squares. First, the model is presented to the participants, after which they move on to the reconstruction phase. During this phase, they have an empty black frame.

“To recreate the model, participants used the computer mouse to indicate the position and color of each square. Importantly, participants can freely examine the model with the press of a button and alternate between the model and the reconstruction screen as they wish.

“By tracking the number of item positions after each model review, we can estimate VWM capacity utilization at each step.

“In addition to our new tasks, participants were assessed with a visual change detection task to allow us to examine the correlation between VWM ability, as measured in standard tasks, and use and accuracy of the VWM in our model reconstruction task,” the two men write. .

In two experiments, researchers found that instead of exploiting their full capacity, participants underutilized their VWM. In most cases, they chose to retain only one item at a time, despite their ability to remember more items. Further studies should examine why people do this and how this decision affects performance in real-world tasks.

Funding: The study was funded by the Israel Science Foundation (grant no. 1088/21).

About this research news on visual memory

Author: Ehud Zion Waldoks
Source: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Contact: Ehud Zion Waldoks – Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Picture: Image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original research: Free access.
“The voluntary use of visual working memory” by Yoav Kessler et al. Scientific reports


Voluntary use of visual working memory

While a large body of research has focused on understanding the capacity limits of visual working memory (VWM), little is known about how VWM resources are used in unforced behavior and whether their correlation with individual capacity constraints.

We present a new paradigm, openly available and easy to administer, allowing participants to freely use their VWM capacity. Participants had to piece together a set of colored squares.

In each trial, they were allowed to alternate between the memory array and the reconstruction screen as many times as they wanted, each time choosing the number of items to reconstruct. This approach allowed us to estimate the number of elements used, as well as the precision of the reconstruction.

Additionally, VWM capacity was measured using a change detection task. In two experiments, we show that participants tend to underutilize their VWM resources, performing well below their capacity limits.

Surprisingly, although the extent to which participants used their VWM was highly reliable, it was not correlated with VWM ability, suggesting that VWM use is limited due to strategic considerations rather than limitations of capacity.

News Source :
Gn Health

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