Visual short-term memory capacity for simple and complex objects

J Cogn Neurosci. 2010 Mar;22(3):496-512. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2009.21214.


Does the capacity of visual short-term memory (VSTM) depend on the complexity of the objects represented in memory? Although some previous findings indicated lower capacity for more complex stimuli, other results suggest that complexity effects arise during retrieval (due to errors in the comparison process with what is in memory) that is not related to storage limitations of VSTM, per se. We used ERPs to track neuronal activity specifically related to retention in VSTM by measuring the sustained posterior contralateral negativity during a change detection task (which required detecting if an item was changed between a memory and a test array). The sustained posterior contralateral negativity, during the retention interval, was larger for complex objects than for simple objects, suggesting that neurons mediating VSTM needed to work harder to maintain more complex objects. This, in turn, is consistent with the view that VSTM capacity depends on complexity.

MeSH terms

  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Color Perception / physiology*
  • Evoked Potentials
  • Humans
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Reaction Time
  • Retention, Psychology / physiology*