Working memory for relations among objects

Atten Percept Psychophys. 2014 Oct;76(7):1933-53. doi: 10.3758/s13414-013-0601-3.


Across many areas of study in cognition, the capacity of working memory (WM) is widely agreed to be roughly three to five items: three to five objects (i.e., bound collections of object features) in the literature on visual WM or three to five role bindings (i.e., objects in specific relational roles) in the literature on memory and reasoning. Three experiments investigated the capacity of observers' WM for the spatial relations among objects in a visual display, and the results suggest that the "items" in WM are neither simply objects nor simply role bindings. The results of Experiment 1 are most consistent with a model that treats an "item" in visual WM as an object, along with the roles of all its relations to one other object. Experiment 2 compared observers' WM for object size with their memory for relative size and provided evidence that observers compute and store objects' relations per se (rather than just absolute size) in WM. Experiment 3 tested and confirmed several more nuanced predictions of the model supported by Experiment 1. Together, these findings suggest that objects are stored in visual WM in pairs (along with all the relations between the objects in a pair) and that, from the perspective of WM, a given object in one pair is not the same "item" as that same object in a different pair.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Size Perception / physiology
  • Spatial Memory / physiology
  • Visual Perception / physiology*