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Iconic Memory: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 0:29 Atkinson-Shiffrin Theory
  • 0:47 George Sperling
  • 2:50 Examples
  • 4:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Chris Clause
In this lesson, you will learn about a specific type of memory called iconic memory. Following completion of this lesson, you will have the opportunity to test your knowledge with a short quiz.

Definition of Iconic Memory

Iconic memory is sensory memory that's taken in via the visual system. In other words, iconic memory is the neurological result of the environmental information that's sensed by our eyes. Iconic memories are fleeting, with the information available in its original form for only about ¼ of a second.

Atkinson-Shiffrin Theory

According to the Atkinson-Shiffrin model of memory, memory consists of three main components:

  • Sensory
  • Short-term
  • Long-term

All sensory memory, whether iconic or some other type, is the relatively brief period of time in which sensory information is retained by the nervous system in its original form. Once a sensory memory has been created it can either be transferred into short- or long-term memory for use or be ignored and discarded.

George Sperling

Prior to the early 1960s, it was generally accepted by cognitive psychologists that the human brain was capable of recalling short lists of numbers provided to them visually even if only for a fraction of a second. Cognitive psychologist George Sperling, believed that the human brain was actually capable of processing more than we were giving it credit for, but that the memory trace was so short-lived that limits to recall were making it seem as if only a handful of numbers could be recalled.

In 1960, Sperling conducted what's believed to be the first research project focused on iconic memory. Sperling showed a pattern of letters to participants on a computer screen, similar to this:

Letter Chart

The letter pattern was only available for a fraction of a second before it disappeared.

The participants were able to recognize several of the letters, but not usually more than 4 or 5. This was important because it informed Sperling that the human visual system can retain information in its original form, even after very brief exposure. The question lingered: why were only a few of the letters being recalled? Remember that Sperling thought we were capable of retaining more than we were able to report.

Sperling believed that it had to do with how long iconic memory remains available. Given longer exposure time, most people would have no trouble remembering all nine letters, so he hypothesized that while iconic memory is accurate, it is fleeting and short-lived.

To test this idea he showed participants the letter patterns again, but this time provided them with a cue immediately after all nine letters were displayed directing them to only recall the top, middle, or bottom row of letters. The participants were able to master this task with relative ease.

Sperling concluded that in order for participants to master this task all nine letters would have to be available via sensory memory. Iconic memory processes had captured all nine letters, but it was our ability to recall them that had been the limitation.

Examples of Iconic Memory

Let's look at a couple of examples of how we might use iconic memory in the course of a day.

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