Visual long-term memory has the same limit on fidelity as visual working memory

Psychol Sci. 2013 Jun;24(6):981-90. doi: 10.1177/0956797612465439. Epub 2013 Apr 29.


Visual long-term memory can store thousands of objects with surprising visual detail, but just how detailed are these representations, and how can one quantify this fidelity? Using the property of color as a case study, we estimated the precision of visual information in long-term memory, and compared this with the precision of the same information in working memory. Observers were shown real-world objects in random colors and were asked to recall the colors after a delay. We quantified two parameters of performance: the variability of internal representations of color (fidelity) and the probability of forgetting an object's color altogether. Surprisingly, the fidelity of color information in long-term memory was comparable to the asymptotic precision of working memory. These results suggest that long-term memory and working memory may be constrained by a common limit, such as a bound on the fidelity required to retrieve a memory representation.

Keywords: long-term memory; short-term memory; visual memory.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Color Perception / physiology
  • Humans
  • Memory, Long-Term / physiology*
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Mental Recall / physiology*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult