The Case of the Missing Visual Details: Occlusion and Long-Term Visual Memory

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Abstract

To investigate the critical information in long-term visual memory representations of objects, we used occlusion to emphasize 1 type of information or another. By occluding 1 solid side of the object (e.g., top 50%) or by occluding 50% of the object with stripes (like a picket fence), we emphasized visible information about the object, processing the visible details in the former and the object’s overall form in the latter. On a token discrimination test, surprisingly, memory for solid or stripe occluded objects at either encoding (Experiment 1) or test (Experiment 2) was the same. In contrast, when occluded objects matched at encoding and test (Experiment 3) or when the occlusion shifted, revealing the entire object piecemeal (Experiment 4), memory was better for solid compared with stripe occluded objects, indicating that objects are represented differently in long-term visual memory. Critically, we also found that when the task emphasized remembering exactly what was shown, memory performance in the more detailed solid occlusion condition exceeded that in the stripe condition (Experiment 5). However, when the task emphasized the whole object form, memory was better in the stripe condition (Experiment 6) than in the solid condition. We argue that long-term visual memory can represent objects flexibly, and task demands can interact with visual information, allowing the viewer to cope with changing real-world visual environments.

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