The Gestalt principle of similarity benefits visual working memory

Dwight J Peterson, Marian E Berryhill
Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 2013, 20 (6): 1282-9
Visual working memory (VWM) is essential for many cognitive processes, yet it is notably limited in capacity. Visual perception processing is facilitated by Gestalt principles of grouping, such as connectedness, similarity, and proximity. This introduces the question, do these perceptual benefits extend to VWM? If so, can this be an approach to enhance VWM function by optimizing the processing of information? Previous findings have demonstrated that several Gestalt principles (connectedness, common region, and spatial proximity) do facilitate VWM performance in change detection tasks (Jiang, Olson, & Chun, 2000; Woodman, Vecera, & Luck, 2003; Xu, 2002, 2006; Xu & Chun, 2007). However, one prevalent Gestalt principle, similarity, has not been examined with regard to facilitating VWM. Here, we investigated whether grouping by similarity benefits VWM. Experiment 1 established the basic finding that VWM performance could benefit from grouping. Experiment 2 replicated and extended this finding by showing that similarity was only effective when the similar stimuli were proximal. In short, the VWM performance benefit derived from similarity was constrained by spatial proximity, such that similar items need to be near each other. Thus, the Gestalt principle of similarity benefits visual perception, but it can provide benefits to VWM as well.

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