The sensory strength of voluntary visual imagery predicts visual working memory capacity

J Vis. 2014 Oct 9;14(12):7. doi: 10.1167/14.12.7.


How much we can actively hold in mind is severely limited and differs greatly from one person to the next. Why some individuals have greater capacities than others is largely unknown. Here, we investigated why such large variations in visual working memory (VWM) capacity might occur, by examining the relationship between visual working memory and visual mental imagery. To assess visual working memory capacity participants were required to remember the orientation of a number of Gabor patches and make subsequent judgments about relative changes in orientation. The sensory strength of voluntary imagery was measured using a previously documented binocular rivalry paradigm. Participants with greater imagery strength also had greater visual working memory capacity. However, they were no better on a verbal number working memory task. Introducing a uniform luminous background during the retention interval of the visual working memory task reduced memory capacity, but only for those with strong imagery. Likewise, for the good imagers increasing background luminance during imagery generation reduced its effect on subsequent binocular rivalry. Luminance increases did not affect any of the subgroups on the verbal number working memory task. Together, these results suggest that luminance was disrupting sensory mechanisms common to both visual working memory and imagery, and not a general working memory system. The disruptive selectivity of background luminance suggests that good imagers, unlike moderate or poor imagers, may use imagery as a mnemonic strategy to perform the visual working memory task.

Keywords: individual differences; memory capacity; mental imagery; perceptual disruption; verbal working memory; visual working memory.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Cues
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Imagination / physiology
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Orientation / physiology
  • Perceptual Masking / physiology
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Spatial Memory / physiology
  • Vision, Ocular / physiology
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult