Two types of representation in visual memory: evidence from the effects of stimulus contrast on image combination

G J Hitch, M A Brandimonte, P Walker
Memory & Cognition 1995, 23 (2): 147-54
An imagery task was used to explore the distinction between visual memory representations that preserve surface features and more abstract descriptions. Subjects were shown two line drawings and were then asked to combine a visual image of each drawing in order to identify a novel figure. The main experimental manipulation concerned the contrast in which each drawing was shown, which was either normal or reversed. Experiment 1 showed that image combination was more efficient when the contrasts of the two drawings were congruent with each other, but only when the imagery task was performed under conditions emphasizing short-term memory (STM). There was no effect of congruity when one of the images was generated from long-term memory (LTM). These results are consistent with the idea that the surface characteristics of a stimulus are preserved in visual STM, but a more abstract description is stored in visual LTM. In Experiment 2 we explored the influence of verbal recoding on performance of the imagery task by requiring subjects to suppress articulation. Under LTM conditions, performance of the imagery task was improved by suppression and became sensitive to contrast congruity. Under STM conditions, imagery was unaffected by suppression. Overall, these results support the distinction between surface and abstract descriptions in visual memory. However, they suggest that this distinction does not map onto that between STM and LTM in any simple way. It is suggested that short-term visual memory maintains surface descriptions and long-term visual memory preserves both surface and abstract descriptions. Verbal coding of visual stimuli appears to encourage the use of abstract visual descriptions.

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