Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

The Gestalt Principle of Similarity Benefits Visual Working Memory

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

The Gestalt Principle of Similarity Benefits Visual Working Memory

Article excerpt

Published online: 24 May 2013

# Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2013

Abstract Visual working memory (VWM) is essential for many cognitive processes, yet it is notably limited in capacity. Visual perception processing is facilitated by Gestalt principles of grouping, such as connectedness, similarity, and proximity. This introduces the question, do these perceptual benefits extend to VWM? If so, can this be an approach to enhance VWM function by optimizing the processing of information? Previous findings have demonstrated that several Gestalt principles (connectedness, common region, and spatial proximity) do facilitate VWM performance in change detection tasks (Jiang, Olson, & Chun, 2000; Woodman, Vecera, & Luck, 2003; Xu, 2002, 2006; Xu & Chun, 2007). However, one prevalent Gestalt principle, similarity, has not been examined with regard to facilitating VWM. Here, we investigated whether grouping by similarity benefits VWM. Experiment 1 established the basic finding that VWM performance could benefit from grouping. Experiment 2 replicated and extended this finding by showing that similarity was only effective when the similar stimuli were proximal. In short, the VWM performance benefit derived from similarity was constrained by spatial proximity, such that similar items need to be near each other. Thus, the Gestalt principle of similarity benefits visual perception, but it can provide benefits to VWM as well.

Keywords Visual working memory . Gestalt principles . Perceptual organization

Visual working memory (VWM) allows us to temporarily store and process relevant information from the visual world across temporary interruptions such as saccades. As such, it supports most cognitive tasks, but it is limited in capacity. Behavioral estimates of VWM capacity, defined here as the number of item representations stored simultaneously, converge on an limit of ~4 items (Alvarez & Cavanagh, 2004; Awh, Barton, & Vogel, 2007;Cowan,2001;Luck&Vogel, 1997). Behavioral estimates of this limit have converged with neural estimates, as measured by an event-related potential component termed the contralateral delay-related activity (CDA; Vogel & Machizawa, 2004) and by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data (Todd & Marois, 2004; Xu & Chun, 2006). In both cases, the neural signature amplitude increases with set size and asymptotes at an individual's VWM capacity limit (for fMRI, see Todd & Marois, 2005;for the CDA, see Vogel & Machizawa, 2004).

These apparently biological constraints on VWM capacity prompt the following question: Can the storage of visual information within VWM be optimized by grouping cues that enhance perception? One relevant observation is that Gestalt principles of grouping facilitate visual perception (Wertheimer, 1924/1950), and some evidence has shown that they may also benefit VWM. Gestalt principles make grouped objects appear to "belong together" (Rock, 1986). Among the various types of Gestalt groupings, three are particularly relevant here: proximity, uniform connectedness, and similarity. Proximity refers to grouping of objects in physical space (Wertheimer, 1924/1950), uniform connectedness groups physically linked features into a single object (Palmer & Rock, 1994), and similarity refers to grouping based on repetition of features such as color (Wertheimer, 1924/1950). A large literature has documented the effects of Gestalt grouping on visual perception. Several key findings are worth reviewing before returning to VWM. First, the processing of Gestalt grouping cues is thought to occur preattentively (Duncan, 1984; Duncan & Humphreys, 1989; Kahneman & Treisman, 1984; Moore & Egeth, 1997; Neisser, 1967; but see also Ben-Av, Sagi, & Braun, 1992; Mack & Rock, 1998; Mack, Tang, Tuma, Kahn, & Rock, 1992). During this preattentive stage, the visual field is divided into discrete objects on the basis of Gestalt princi- ples (Duncan, 1984, Neisser, 1967). …

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