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Iconic Memory: Meaning & Examples

Cynthia Cooley-Themm, Chris Clause
  • Author
    Cynthia Cooley-Themm

    Dr. Cooley-Themm received her B.S. in Biomedical Sciences, her M.S in Biological Sciences, and her Ph.D. in Biological Sciences with a concentration in Neuroscience from Western Michigan University. She has taught at the University level for 6 years. During that time, she taught several courses including Human Physiology, Introduction to Neuroscience, and Human Biology of Health and Disease.

  • Instructor
    Chris Clause

    Chris is an educator with a background in psychology and counseling. He also holds a PhD in public affairs, and has worked as a counselor and teacher for community college students for more than 10 years.

In this lesson, study iconic memory and the experiments used to investigate it. Learn the duration of iconic memory, and explore day-to-day examples of what it stores. Updated: 11/03/2021

What is Iconic Memory?

Sensory memories created from the sense of sight are, aptly, called visual memories. Early visual memories fit into two major categories. The first is a limited capacity, visual working memory that can last several seconds. The second is a high-capacity but shorter-lived iconic memory. Iconic memory is the incredibly brief storage of a visual stimulus, after the stimulus has been removed. In young adults the duration of iconic memory is estimated to be around 250 milliseconds, or 1/4 of a second. This type of memory allows one to recall an image or visual stimulus for just a flash before the brain discards it. Simply put, iconic memory allows someone to remember a bit more information but for a shorter period, whereas working memory allows an individual to hold onto a smaller amount of information slightly longer.

What Does Iconic Memory Store?

Memories come in many forms and types.

A collage of photos being placed into a frame.

Human memory is a very complex subject. Memories themselves are discussed in terms of how they are formed, how long they last, the type of information they are comprised of, and whether they are conscious or subconscious. We create and experience memories in three main stages. A pair of researchers named Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin were the first to propose these three stages back in 1968. Their theory of memory proposes three components of human memory: sensory register, short-term store, and long-term store. This Atkinson-Shiffrin memory theory helps to explain how our memory works.

A sensory memory is a very early short-term storage of information experienced by any one of the five major senses. The duration of these early memories varies slightly depending on which sense it was formed by, but none last more than a few seconds. Atkinson and Shiffrin were the first to address and name the two most common memory types collected by humans. These were the visual and auditory memories, named iconic and echoic memories, respectively.

Atkinson and Shiffrin first called visual memory iconic memory.

A close up of a human eye.

Iconic memory briefly stores a visual stimulus after it is no longer visible.

Short-term memory lasts a few minutes and has a limited capacity. Information stays here for several minutes before it is either forgotten or transferred to long-term memory.

Long-term memory stores information beyond a few minutes. Contrary to what the name suggests, long-term memory does not necessarily last forever. It decays with time. The lifespan of a long-term memory depends on how frequently the information is used.

We will discuss the process of transforming memories from one stage to the next later in this lesson.

Components of Iconic Memory

Two main components of iconic memory have been identified: visible persistence and informational persistence. The former is the immediate picture that the brain stores directly after viewing an image. Informational persistence involves the actual data retrieved in the brain. The brain receives messages in a neurological code that it converts into what we perceive as a physical image. This is the informational persistence component of iconic memory.

Role of Iconic Memory

Many studies have suggested that iconic memory plays a role in a process called change blindness, defined as the failure to detect changes in a visual scene. Imagine two visual scenes that are identical except for some small differences. In most cases, an observer can recognize these changes when briefly presented with one image followed immediately by the other. Even after the images are removed from sight, for the briefest of moments iconic memory allows a person to recognize some differences between the two images.

However, if the presentations of the two images were interrupted by a brief interval of time, the iconic memory of the stimuli is effectively erased. In this scenario, an individual has experienced change blindness, wherein it is much more difficult to notice any changes between the two scenes. This is because iconic memory only lasts about a half of a second. Having a brief interval between the observation of the two scenes essentially outlasts the duration of iconic memory, and results in the ''blindness.''

Most children have experienced a very memorable iconic memory if they have ever played with or watched someone play with sparklers. They might have noticed how the light of the sparkler leaves a trail or ''smear'' as it is waved around. This is because the brain remembers (through iconic memory) the location of the sparkler just the briefest of moments ago. When images are presented so quickly, this temporal property of iconic memory allows the brain to integrate the images together. The brain can essentially ''fill in the blanks'' of the entire path of the sparkler as it moves. Flip books are another example of this temporal property of iconic memory. When the pages are flipped fast enough, they almost blur into one continuous scene.

Another proposed role of iconic memory involves saccadic eye movements. Human eyes make very rapid movements (at a rate of several times per second) called saccades, while shifting their gaze from one location to another. Just like the ''smear'' of the sparklers in the example above, our visual system receives a similar input while we make these rapid eye movements. Our visual information is smeared with reduced quality. With the image constantly moving due to the saccades, our brains must integrate this information smear to put together a clear, cohesive, and recognizable image. Iconic memory is thought to play a role in this phenomenon. Evidence suggests that iconic memory allows us to detect changes in the scene that occur during a saccade and to fill in the blanks of the scene to allow for complete and smooth visual processing.

Transfer to Durable Storage

A single memory travels along quite a journey in the brain depending on its fate. Every memory starts as a sensory memory, but only a small percentage make it all the way to long-term memory, otherwise known as durable storage. Most of what we experience is simply forgotten. As mentioned, simple sensory memories typically last no longer than a few seconds. In the case of visual (iconic) memories, these visualizations begin their journey in the primary visual cortex of the occipital lobe. This is where vision occurs.

These two structures process and regulate our visual input. Visual information is stored in the occipital lobe for just a few milliseconds as iconic memories form. From there, the information is either discarded or passed along to the hippocampus within the temporal lobe to be converted to into short-term and, eventually long-term, memory. Here, these visual memories can finally persist beyond a few minutes. The determining factor in whether a sensory memory is forgotten or transitions into a longer lasting memory lies in how much attention is paid to the stimulus at the moment it is being experienced. Therefore, concentration, focus, repetition, rehearsal, and etc. all allow us to process our brief sensory memories into durable storage.

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.

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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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Video Transcript

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.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an iconic memory in psychology?

Iconic memory is a type of short-term sensory memory in which one can recall visual images for just a few milliseconds after the physical image has disappeared. Iconic memory retrieves visual signals from the outside world and either transfers it to other forms like short-term memory, or discards it. Early memory loss usually involves inadequate short-term memory, including iconic memory.

What's an example of iconic memory?

An iconic memory is an immediate, brief memory of a visual image that lasts no more than half a second. As such, an example of iconic memory is when you see a car passing by on the highway, and for a brief moment you can picture the car after it is gone.

What is iconic memory and how long does it last?

Iconic memory is very short-term sensory memory in which a person can recall visual images for just a few milliseconds after the physical image has disappeared. Iconic memories last no longer than a half a second, or 500 ms.

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