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Is Visual Memory Really That Visual?

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Looking back at the research I have been involved with in many areas of psychology, I often wonder which area is of the most interest to me. I considered studying how people can detect different emotions in faces after developing a study on this during my master’s degree while living in the North East of England. I also considered looking at how personality can influence such emotion detection , similar to the studies I conducted during my undergraduate dissertation time at university but again, this was not of a strong interest to me.

It was only after I had finished my university education (or so I thought!) that I developed a strong interest in memory while working as a researcher near my home town of Newcastle.

During my time as a research assistant, I saw how researchers were looking at the memory of faces and objects, finding that faces could be remembered easier than their cube counterparts. 

A paper looking at the differences of faces and objects and the amount that can be stored in memory, gave a strong indication that people are experts in their own face memory. As people encounter faces on a daily basis, they become familiar and gain experience at learning different faces and qualities of faces.

In the paper I have mentioned, cars were used as the ‘objects’ and it was found that people could not remember the cars as clearly. In everyday life, people do not have as much experience with cars, in particular if you are a non-driver or are not old enough to pursue driving. When I decided to do some research into this area, during my master’s degree, I wondered whether this was still the case when people were looking at inverted (as well as upright) faces.

My own results interestingly showed support for what had been previously thought about the memory for faces. I had found that people can remember faces easier than objects, even if the faces are inverted, suggesting that expertise could well be an explanation for a person’s more accurate memory of faces.

Unfortunately, my time on this research project was limited due to the completion of my master’s degree and my research experience, however I will always have an interest in the memory for faces and objects.

Completing a master’s degree provided me with an insight into how psychological research can be conducted using different aspects of memory and after a huge debate with myself, I decided to apply for a position as a doctoral researcher (studying for a PhD). After being offered a post as a doctoral researcher, I developed my own line of research in memory and had to consider a novel area for study that had not been investigated before.

Three months after beginning my post, I designed a research plan looking at how we use visual and verbal information in the world to help us remember things.I had decided to move away from the area of face memory as this is a heavily researched area of which in the end I would have needed to include the memory for emotions – something that I could not see myself researching for nearly three years!

My own research allowed me to create a memory task that looked at the memory of coloured squares. I questioned about how we may use our knowledge of less visual elements in the world to assist with the memory of the squares. I began with a basic square memory task which had been used quite widely in the memory literature and I created my own version of this task to use in my own doctoral work.

After programming such as task, I wanted to know whether people were only using the visual information that they had seen during the task as part of memory, such as the colours of the squares only, or whether they were using external influences such as verbal or semantic information which could be suggested about the images.

When creating the memory task, I added in images of squares that could be given forms of verbal words, such as the coloured squares being given the name of a national flag – something that would require semantic knowledge of the world. In one of my images, I included the colours red, green and white which were the colours of the Italian flag.

I also included the colours of other flags around the world such as those of the German flag or American flag in the hope of trying to see how people use verbal information and meanings of the world within their memories. 

I added in these types of images to see if people could use other information, and not just visual information, to influence their memory and indeed I found that people were doing this. Many of the results showed that people were not just thinking of the colours of the squares but that they were also providing some form of meaning to the images, suggesting more than just the use of visual details here.

In the real world, people will often look at an object and use visual elements to remember how the object looked, but they will also use semantic details and meanings of that object to support the memory. These semantic details could include what the object is used for or whether any experience has been had with the object.

So this now leaves me with one question: what’s next? I could focus upon whether this is the same with younger and older people as some research has shown that there are age differences in different memory tasks. I could also see if there are any links between memory and measures of intelligence as intelligence has been shown to have some link to intelligence due to the use of visual and non-visual elements. Whatever I decide, I know that it must provide further insights into how people can use the world to help with their own memory as my research is only the beginning. 

Laura Jenkins, PhD is a teaching associate in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University. 


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