What determines how much can be stored in visual short-term memory (VSTM)? Studies of VSTM have focused largely on stimulus-based properties such as the number or complexity of the items stored. Recent work also suggests that capacity is severely reduced for items within the same category. However, the importance for VSTM capacity of more qualitative differences in processing for different categories has not been investigated. For example, faces are processed more holistically than other objects. In Experiments 1 and 2, we show that the processing of faces, objects that are crucial socially and for which we possess considerable expertise, overcomes these limitations. More faces can be stored in VSTM than objects from other complex nonface categories. As in prior studies, at short encoding durations we found that capacity for faces was less than that for other categories. However, at longer encoding durations, capacity for faces exceeded that for nonface objects, and this advantage was specific to upright faces. Because inversion reduces holistic processing, the interaction of orientation with VSTM capacity—which occurred for faces but not objects in Experiment 3—suggests that it is holistic processing that confers an advantage for face VSTM when sufficient encoding time is allowed.
Alvarez, G. A., &Cavanagh, P. (2004). The capacity of visual short term memory is set both by visual information load and by number of objects.Psychological Science,15, 106–111.
Awh, E., Barton, B., &Vogel, E. K. (2007). Visual working memory represents a fixed number of items regardless of complexity.Psychological Science,18, 622–628.
Chen, D., Eng, H. Y., &Jiang, Y. (2006). Visual working memory for trained and novel polygons.Visual Cognition,12, 37–54.
Chun, M. M., &Potter, M. C. (1995). A two-stage model for multiple target detection in rapid serial visual presentation.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance,21, 109–127.
Cowan, N. (2001). The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity.Behavioral & Brain Sciences,24, 87–185.
Delvenne, J.-F., &Bruyer, R. (2004). Does visual short-term memory store bound features?Visual Cognition,11, 1–27.
Donderi, D.C. (2006). Visual complexity: A review.Psychological Bulletin,132, 73–97.
Eng, H. Y., Chen, D., &Jiang, Y. (2006). Visual working memory for simple and complex visual stimuli.Psychonomic Bulletin & Review,12, 1127–1133.
Farah, M. J., Tanaka, J. W., &Drain, H. M. (1995). What causes the face inversion effect?Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance,21, 628–634.
Freire, A., Lee, K., &Symons, L. A. (2000). The face-inversion effect as a deficit in the encoding of configural information: Direct evidence.Perception,29, 159–170.
Gauthier, I., &Tarr, M. J. (2002). Unraveling mechanisms for expert object recognition: Bridging brain activity and behavior.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance,28, 431–446.
Jolicoeur, P., &Dell’Acqua, R. (1998). The demonstration of shortterm consolidation.Cognitive Psychology,36, 138–202.
Lawson, R., &Jolicoeur, P. (1998). The effects of plane rotation on the recognition of brief masked pictures of familiar objects.Memory & Cognition,26, 791–803.
Olsson, H., &Poom, L. (2005) Visual memory needs categories.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,102, 8776–8780.
Rossion, B., &Gauthier, I. (2002). How does the brain process upright and inverted faces?Behavioral & Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews,1, 63–75.
Tanaka, J. W., &Sengco, J. A. (1997). Features and their configuration in face recognition.Memory & Cognition,25, 583–592.
Tong, F., &Nakayama, K. (1999). Robust representations for faces: Evidence from visual search.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance,25, 1016–1035.
Vogel, E. K., Woodman, G. F., &Luck, S. J. (2001). Storage of features, conjunctions, and objects in visual working memory.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance,27, 92–114.
Vogel, E. K., Woodman, G. F., &Luck, S. J. (2006). The time course of consolidation in visual working memory.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance,32, 1436–1451.
Wheeler, M. E., &Treisman, A. M. (2002). Binding in short-term visual memory.Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,131, 48–64.
Wolfe, J. M., Klempen, N., &Dahlen, K. (2000). Post-attentive vi sion.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance,26, 693–716.
Xu, Y. (2006). Understanding the object benefit in visual short-term memory: The roles of proximity and connectedness.Perception & Psychophysics,68, 815–828.
Yin, R. K. (1969). Looking at upside-down faces.Journal of Experimental Psychology,81, 141–145.
This study was supported by NSF (0091752), NIH (EY13441), and James S. McDonnell Foundation awards. This research was also supported in part by the Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center (NSF Science of Learning Center SBE-0542013).
Note—Accepted by David A. Balota’s editorial team.
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
Curby, K.M., Gauthier, I. A visual short-term memory advantage for faces. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 14, 620–628 (2007). https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03196811
- Rapid Serial Visual Presentation
- Visual Working Memory
- Stimulus Category
- Encode Time
- Study Array