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What Is Visual Working Memory?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Visual working memory is an area of memory storage that allows the brain to retain visual information for a very brief period of time, often only a few seconds, for the purpose of completing a specific task. This forms part of the overall working memory, which can also store other forms of information, like verbal data, for immediate use. Research on visual working memory helps scientists understand the processes of memory formation and task completion, and can also establish important information about how people respond to rapid changes in the visual environment.

Working memory is the conduit through which memories move so the brain can use them. Short term memories can be brought up in working memory if they are needed, while when the brain recalls long term memories, they appear in working memory to create access. People use visual working memory regularly and without conscious thought to navigate the world around them. It may be necessary to keep visual information in mind while not actively looking at it and receiving real time visual stimulation for activities ranging from construction to academic studies.

The number of objects available in visual working memory appear to be finite, and it is much more limited than verbal working memory. Research also shows that it appears difficult to train people with visual recall. Study subjects who can learn to keep long lists of words in their verbal working memory, for instance, cannot recall shapes, lines, colors, and other visual attributes of stimuli, even with the use of memory training techniques in an attempt to increase recall.

This area of the memory is also subject to interruption in the event of a significant stimulus or change. This allows people to react quickly while still retaining information in their visual working memory and ensures that even when this area is not very active, as when people are bored by dull stimuli, it can kick into high gear very quickly. A passenger on an aircraft, for example, might gaze absently out the window without thinking, but would jerk into awareness if the wing suddenly caught fire, as this would create a marked change in the visual environment.

Studies on visual working memory occur in cognitive science and psychology labs all over the world. Many studies need participants, and may provide opportunities to members of the general public who want to learn more about working memory and contribute to scientific research. Study participants sometimes receive a small stipend for their services and have an opportunity to add to the body of knowledge on memory, visual perception, and information storage.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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