Timing is (almost) everything: Memory enhanced when events occur at behaviorally relevant times

March 15, 2010

What determines whether a scene is remembered or forgotten? According to a study published this week in the open access journal PLoS Biology, memory for visual scenes may not depend on attention level or what a scene contains, but when the scene is presented. The study, presented by researchers at the University of Washington, shows how visual scenes are encoded into memory at behaviorally relevant points in time.

The ability to remember a briefly presented scene depends on a number of factors, such as its saliency, novelty, degree of threat, or behavioral relevance to a task. Generally, is thought to be key, in that people can only remember part of a visual scene when paying attention to it at any given moment.

In this study, participants performed an attention-demanding "target detection task at ," while also viewing a rapid sequence of full-field photographs of urban and natural scenes. Participants were then tested on whether they recognized a specific scene from the sequence they had been shown or not. "Usually, the addition of a secondary task decreases performance on the first task. However, in this particular case, adding a second task (letter identification) actually enhanced performance in the first task (scene ) when targets were accurately detected in the second letter identification task," says Jeffrey Lin, the lead author of the study.

This study adds to our understanding of how selective attention can influence the ability to remember specific features of our environment. The results point to a that automatically encodes certain visual features into memory at behaviorally relevant points in time, regardless of the spatial focus of attention. Timing may not be everything, but it's more important than you realize.

Explore further: Memory loss in older adults due to distractions, not inability to focus

More information: Lin JY, Pype AD, Murray SO, Boynton GM (2010) Enhanced Memory for Scenes Presented at Behaviorally Relevant Points in Time. PLoS Biol 8(3): e1000337. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000337

Related Stories

British memory retention study is detailed

January 19, 2006

British scientists say they've found that the ability to remember the details of a natural scene is unaffected by the distraction of another activity.

Study: Attention can impair perception

September 12, 2006

We normally think of paying attention to an object as a way to better perceive it, but U.S. scientists say sustained attention might worsen perception.

How the brain copes with shifty eyeballs

April 18, 2007

Neurobiologists have pinpointed brain regions critical to one of the brain’s more remarkable feats—piecing together a continuous view of the world by integrating snippets of visual input from constantly moving eyes. Since ...

A walk in the park a day keeps mental fatigue away

December 18, 2008

If you spend the majority of your time among stores, restaurants and skyscrapers, it may be time to trade in your stilettos for some hiking boots. A new study in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological ...

Recommended for you

How the finch changes its tune

August 3, 2015

Like top musicians, songbirds train from a young age to weed out errors and trim variability from their songs, ultimately becoming consistent and reliable performers. But as with human musicians, even the best are not machines. ...

Machine Translates Thoughts into Speech in Real Time

December 21, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- By implanting an electrode into the brain of a person with locked-in syndrome, scientists have demonstrated how to wirelessly transmit neural signals to a speech synthesizer. The "thought-to-speech" process ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.