How High Is Visual Short-Term Memory Capacity for Object Layout?

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Previous research measuring visual short-term memory (VSTM) suggests that the capacity for representing the layout of objects is fairly high. In four experiments, we further explored the capacity of VSTM for layout of objects, using the change detection method. In Experiment 1, participants retained most of the elements in displays of 4 to 8 elements. In Experiments 2 and 3, with up to 20 elements, participants retained many of them, reaching a capacity of 13.4 stimulus elements. In Experiment 4, participants retained much of a complex naturalistic scene. In most cases, increasing display size caused only modest reductions in performance, consistent with the idea of configural, variable-resolution grouping. The results indicate that participants can retain a substantial amount of scene layout information (objects and locations) in short-term memory. We propose that this is a case of remote visual understanding, where observers’ ability to integrate information from a scene is paramount.