What Is Iconic Memory?

Iconic memories are visual sensory memories
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People remember things in different ways. Iconic memory involves the memory of visual stimuli. It is how the brain remembers an image you have seen in the world around you. For example, look at an object in the room you are in now, and then close your eyes and visualize that object. The image you "see" in your mind is your iconic memory of that visual stimuli.

Iconic memory is part of the visual memory system which also includes long-term memory and visual short-term memory.

It is a type of sensory memory that lasts very briefly before quickly fading. Iconic memory is thought to last mere milliseconds before disappearing.

Sperling's Experiments on Iconic Memory

In 1960, George Sperling performed experiments designed to demonstrate the existence of visual sensory memory. He was also interested in exploring the capacity and duration of this type of memory. In Sperling's experiments, he showed a series of letters on a computer screen to participants. These letters were only visible on the screen for a fraction of a second, but the subjects were able to recognize at least some of the letters. However, few were able to identify more than four or five letters.

The results of these experiments suggested that the human visual system is capable of retaining information even if the exposure is very brief. The reason so few letters could be recalled, Sperling suggested, was because this type of memory is so fleeting.

In additional experiments, Sperling provided clues to help prompt memories of the letters. Letters were presented in rows, and the participants were asked to recall only the top, middle or bottom rows. The participants were able to remember the prompted letters relatively easily, suggesting it is the limitations of this type of visual memory that prevents us from recalling all of the letters.

We see and register them, Sperling believed, but the memories simply fade too quickly to be recalled.

In 1967, psychologist Ulric Neisser labeled this form of quickly fading visual memory as iconic memory.

A Few Examples of Iconic Memory

You glance over at a friend's phone as she is scrolling through her Facebook newsfeed. You spot something as she quickly thumbs past it, but you can close your eyes and visualize an image of the item very briefly.

You wake up at night to get a drink of water and turn the kitchen light on. Almost instantly, the bulb burns out and leaves you in darkness, but you can briefly envision what the room looked like from the brief glimpse you were able to get.

You are driving home one night when a deer bounds across the road in front of you. You can immediately visualize an image of the deer bolting across the road illuminated by your headlights.

Iconic Memory’s Role in Change Blindness

Iconic memory is believed to play a role in change blindness, or the failure to detect changes in a visual scene.

In experiments, researchers have shown that people struggle to detect differences in two visual scenes when they are interrupted by a brief interval. Researchers suggest that the brief interruption effectively erases iconic memory, making it much more difficult to make comparisons and notice changes.

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary

References

Becker, M., H. Pashler, & Anstis, S. (2000). The role of iconic memory in change-detection tasks. Perception, 29(3), 273–286. doi:10.1068/p3035.

Neisser, U. (1967). Cognitive Psychology. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Sperling, G. (1960). The information available in brief visual presentations. Psychological Monographs, 74, 1–29. doi:10.1037/h0093759.

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