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Storage limits on our visual hard drive

NASHVILLE, Tenn.--Scientists have discovered the region of the brain responsible for the old adage, "out of sight, out of mind."

The amount of information we can remember from a visual scene is extremely limited and the source of that limit may lie in the posterior parietal cortex, a region of the brain involved in visual short-term memory, Vanderbilt psychologist Ren Marois and graduate student J. Jay Todd have found. Their results were published in the April 15 edition of Nature.

"Visual short-term memory is a key component of many perceptual and cognitive functions and is supported by a broad neural network, but it has a very limited storage capacity," Marois said. "Though we have the impression we are taking in a great deal of information from a visual scene, we are actually very poor at describing its contents in detail once it is gone from our sight."

Previous findings have determined that an extensive network of brain regions supports visual short-term memory. In their study, Todd and Marois showed that the severely limited storage capacity of visual short-term memory is primarily associated with just one of these regions, the posterior parietal cortex.

Todd and Marois used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a technique that reveals the brain regions active in a given mental task by registering changes in blood flow and oxygenation in these regions, to identify where the capacity limit of visual short-term memory occurs.

The brains of research participants were scanned with fMRI while they were shown scenes containing one to eight colored objects. After a delay of just over a second, the subjects were queried about the scene they had just viewed.

While the subjects were good at remembering all of the objects in scenes containing four or fewer objects, they frequently made mistakes describing displays containing a larger number of objects, indicating that the storage capacity of visual short-term mem
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Contact: Melanie Catania
melanie.catania@vanderbilt.edu
615-322-6397
Vanderbilt University
14-Apr-2004


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