Iconic Memory & Sperling's Partial Report Experiment

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  • 0:01 Fast-Fading Memory
  • 0:47 Iconic Memory
  • 1:38 Whole Report Experiment
  • 2:26 Partial Report Experiment
  • 4:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

In this lesson, you'll learn about an experiment by psychologist George Sperling involving our very short-term memory, and how this changed the way researchers thought about our visual perception.

Fast-Fading Memory

In a moment, you'll see nine numbers on the screen for about one second where right now all you see is a plus sign. Are you ready? Okay, here they are.

Nine numbers

Can you remember any of them?

Researchers have tried this as an experiment, with the numbers showing for even less time, just a tiny portion of second. They've found that most people can recall a few numbers, and then the rest of the numbers seem to be long gone from their memory.

The image you create in your mind with the numbers you saw is like taking a photograph that fades extremely quickly. In this lesson, you'll learn more about this type of memory, known as iconic memory. We'll also look at how psychologist George Sperling tweaked the numbers experiment and received some results that might surprise you.

Iconic Memory

Iconic memory is a type of visual memory that lasts only a fraction of a second. Anything you look at can create this same kind of fading photograph.

Our iconic memory is a way our vision reports back to our brain about what we have observed, giving the brain a chance to decide whether to take any action in response to that information.

Not all that we see suffers this fate of fading away. Some of the information we see needs to be kept for use by the brain, either for the short or long term. Since we see so much more than we need or can retain, our iconic memory is an opportunity to catch information for a short period until it can be reviewed by the brain. This all happens in the blink of an eye.

It may help to remember the term iconic memory by thinking of how icons are images we can see.

Whole Report Experiment

Before researchers understood very much about this very short-term memory, there was a lot of speculation about how much our vision really takes in. Experiments could be used to test this out.

Think again about the set of nine numbers you saw at the beginning of this lesson. When participants in a similar experiment saw these numbers for even less time than you did, they could not remember many of the numbers. Sometimes they could report back the first row and maybe one or two numbers in the second row.

This type of report back was considered the whole-report version of this experiment, referring to the fact that participants were asked to recall as much of the whole set of images as they could.

The whole-report approach made it seem like human beings are limited to processing just a few images at a time. After all, if you can only report back a few images, perhaps that's all that can be handled at one time.

Partial Report Experiment

But wait! Meet George Sperling, an American psychologist who wondered, do we really only comprehend a few images at a time, or do we perceive much more than that? He decided to try a different method for having participants recall what they had seen.


Just like before, a participant would see a set of numbers on a screen. Immediately after that, a tone was used to indicate which of the lines to report back to the experimenter. So a high tone, for instance, would indicate that you should report back the top line, a medium tone would be for the middle line, and a low tone for the bottom line.

This method was considered a partial-report approach because the participants did not try to aim to report back on everything they had seen, and instead were told exactly what portion to recall.

Guess what they found? Participants could remember most, if not all, of the line indicated, regardless of which line it was - top, middle or bottom. So what did this mean?

Using iconic memory, we can only retain information for a fraction of a second before the brain must decide whether to store it for longer-term use. Yet our vision takes in much more than we can remember long term.

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