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Monday, April 20, 2009

Visual Memory Has Astounding Capacity

My book on memory improvement presents much anecdotal evidence that people with outstanding memories use mental images of what they are trying to remember. Now, a formal scientific study validates the conclusion that ordinary humans have astounding memory capacity for visual (but not auditory) memories.

In this study, young adults (20-35 yrs) were shown a succession of object images, one every three seconds. They were told to remember as much as they could. After about each block of about 300 images, they were given a 5-minute rest break. After 10 such blocks (total images seen = 2,500; total time about 5.5 hours), they were tested with probe images and asked for each one if it had been seen before. Probe object images were paired in three ways: objects that were in a different category, the same category, or the same object but in a different state or pose. Performance accuracy was remarkably high for all conditions, respectively 92%, 88%, and 87% accuracy. Remembering 2,500 images with this level of recongition accuracy is truly astounding.

As comparison, a related study by another research group showed that auditory memory was markedly inferior. When subjects listened to sound clips (conversation, animal sounds, music, etc.) and then asked to distinguish new from old clips, under all conditions performance was systematically inferior to visual-memory performance.

Apparently, everyone has a degree of photographic memory. Certainly, the odds of recognizing that you have seen something are very high, at least under conditions where the image is a simple object. The storage capacity is huge. Does this apply to complex images that contain multiple details? Who knows for sure? The details can serve as useful cues or could even become confusing distractors. It is also not clear, if the visual-image capacity is limited to recognition or whether it applies to generating a recall without an image probe.

Even so, it is a good bet that memory performance will be optimized if memory items are converted to mental images.

Brady, T. F. 2009. Visual long-term memoryh has a massive storage capacity for object details. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 106: 6008-6010.

Cohen, M. A. et al. 2009. Auditory recognition memory is inferior to visual recognition memory. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA. 106 (14): 6008-6010.


  1. The power of images is amazing. Nearly all memory athletes are using the visual associations to remember hundred of digits.

    But there are auditive persons, too. Those people can remember just by listening. Former German Junior Memory Champion Katharina Bunk was using an auditive system to memorize cards. She created associations with locations where she "heard" different noises.

    I wrote an article about the different kinds of associations on Maybe you are interested in reading it. I would be happy about any comment of yours. I am sure I can learn a lot from you!

  2. Anonymous4:40 PM

    I'm a teacher/author who has developed memory techniques to help children memorize multiplication/division facts, addition/subtraction facts and other math tips for visual, audio and kinesthetic learners. Since 65% of the population are visual learners, it's so important to provide students with pictures to help them memorize. I think you might be interested in the products and books I have authored. Donnalyn Yates,

  3. Thank you for this interesting post. I will look up the research for more details. I work with individuals who have auditory comprehension and memory problems, and visual memory is something that is commonly utilized in our treatment sessions. Great blog. . .keep up the good work!

  4. I would like to conduct an experiment to compare the visual and auditory memory.Any idea which websites provide those sound clips to be tested?Images are easy to find but not for recordings.kindling enlightenment would be highly appreciated thanks!


  5. the superiority of visual memory over auditory memory

    Dear all,
    I am wondering about a concept related to human memory. I am doing an investigation regarding the superiority of
    visual memory over auditory memory.What could be a proper explanation in terms of BIOLOGICAL PRINCIPLES? In this case, maybe neurophysiology mechanisms, like maybe visual cortex from where visual memory is retrieved is activated more?.
    Is there any useful website links(journals) or book(s) regarding this?

    Thank you for your help and time.

    Any recommendation is greatly appreciated.

  6. Nice Post about memory improvement. Really Appreciating. Teen Age is perfect age to sharpen you memory skills. Train your brain with several outstanding memory improvement techniques, nlp training, and abacus classes

  7. Really Thankful. Visual Memory can be be hidden talant in your child. You can also Develops Concentration &
    improves memory by memory improvement techniques and abacus classes of Jyoti Jain.


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