Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Representations in Mental Imagery and Working Memory: Evidence from Different Types of Visual Masks

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Representations in Mental Imagery and Working Memory: Evidence from Different Types of Visual Masks

Article excerpt

Abstract Although few studies have systematically investigated the relationship between visual mental imagery and visual working memory, work on the effects of passive visual interference has generally demonstrated a dissociation between the two functions. In four experiments, we investigated a possible commonality between the two functions: We asked whether both rely on depictive representations. Participants judged the visual properties of letters using visual mental images or pictures of unfamiliar letters stored in short-term memory. Participants performed both tasks with two different types of interference: sequences of unstructured visual masks (consisting of randomly changing white and black dots) or sequences of structured visual masks (consisting of fragments of letters). The structured visual noise contained elements of depictive representations (i.e., shape fragments arrayed in space), and hence should interfere with stored depictive representations; the unstructured visual noise did not contain such elements, and thus should not interfere as much with such stored representations. Participants did in fact make more errors in both tasks with sequences of structured visual masks. Various controls converged in demonstrating that in both tasks participants used representations that depicted the shapes of the letters. These findings not only constrain theories of visual mental imagery and visual working memory, but also have direct implications for why some studies have failed to find that dynamic visual noise interferes with visual working memory.

Keywords Visual mental imagery . Visual working memory . Dynamic visual noise . Short-term memory

Visual mental imagery plays a role in a wide range of everyday activities-such as navigating to a store, remembering a grocery list, and packing groceries into the trunk of the car-and is important more generally in such cognitive functions as learning (e.g., Paivio, 1971), memory (e.g., Schacter, 1996), and reasoning (e.g., Kosslyn 1983). Visual mental imagery (MI) typically occurs "when a representation of the type created during the initial phase of perception is present but the stimulus is not actually being perceived; such representations preserve the perceptible properties of the stimulus and ultimately give rise to the subjective experience of perception" (Kosslyn, Thompson, & Ganis, 2006). Many of the functions of imagery, especially its role in reasoning, echo functions that have been attributed to working memory (WM; Baddeley, 1986). However, relatively little research has attempted to pinpoint the ways in which visuospatial imagery and visuospatial working memory are the same or different. In the present experiments, we investigated whether visual MI and visual WM rely on representations that share the same format.

In the model originally proposed by Baddeley and his colleagues (Baddeley, 1986; Baddeley & Hitch, 1974), WM includes three distinct components: a phonological loop (which maintains auditory representations of verbal and auditory information), a visuospatial sketchpad (which maintains representations of visual and spatial information), and a central executive that uses representations stored in these two "slave systems" in complex cognitive tasks, such as reasoning and learning. Logie (1995, 2003; see also Logie & van der Meulen, 2009) further articulated the architecture of WM by suggesting that perceptual information accesses previously stored knowledge, and relatively abstract representations are then fed into a passive visual store (i.e., a "visual cache") and rehearsed in a spatial active store (i.e., an "inner scribe"). According to this view, the visual cache serves as a visual short-term memory (VSTM) by holding the product of initial perceptual input. According to Pearson (2001), information maintained in this visual store is not itself a visual mental image, but rather can be used to create visual mental images within a visual buffer similar to the one described in Kosslyn's model (1994; see also Kosslyn et al. …

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