Visual memory proves to be powerful

December 31, 2008 7:02:58 PM PST
Over past few the years, there have been a number of studies on memory loss. But a new study out of M.I.T. draws some encouraging conclusions about how powerful certain aspects of our memories really are.

Ask almost anybody, and they'll tell you they forget things. But researchers at M.I.T have discovered that visual memory, your mental storehouse of pictures, is bigger than scientists thought.

"Certainly it's changed my views of what's possible in memory," said M.I.T researcher Timothy Brady.

Over the course of five hours, volunteers were asked to watch as more than 3,000 images flashed by, over several hours. Then they were tested, not just on general memory, but specifics, like whether a corkscrew was open or closed -- or whether a donut had a bite taken out of it.

As researchers wrote in national academy of sciences, subjects were right about 90 percent of the time.

"I definitely didn't think people would be able to do this and I didn't think they'd be able to do it so easily," said

But if it's so easy, why do we forget simple things? Lead psychologist Aude Oliva says it's often a matter of focus.

"Pay attention to the visual details, pay attention to where you put your keys, where you park your car," said Oliva.

She believes that moment of concentration helps store the object in a visual memory bank that makes it harder to forget.

"It was so embarrassing because I didn't know what street I parked on," said one volunteer.

The MIT team plans to take their results and conduct a follow up study using brain imaging. They'll try to determine exactly how the brain actually encodes those massive amounts of detail into memory.