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Greer Gillies, Hyun Park, Dirk Bernhardt-Walther, Jonathan Cant, Keisuke Fukuda; Tracing the emergence of stimulus memorability. Journal of Vision 2021;21(9):2446. doi: https://doi.org/10.1167/jov.21.9.2446.
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Some visual stimuli are consistently better remembered than others across individuals. This is due to variations in stimulus-intrinsic properties that determine ease of access into visual long-term memory (VLTM). Though memorability has been demonstrated in multiple stimulus domains, it remains an open question where memorability emerges or what cognitive processes give rise to it. As memorability cannot be attributed to low-level visual features, attentional saliency, or voluntary memory control (Bainbridge, 2020), we tested the hypothesis that memorability emerges within visual working memory (VWM). Specifically, do memorable stimuli require fewer resources to be maintained in VWM? If so, more memorable faces should be retained in VWM than forgettable faces. To test this, we had participants perform a standard VWM task with arrays of 3 or 6 face stimuli that were previously classified as “memorable” and “forgettable” (Bainbridge et al., 2013). VWM performance was better in the set size 3 condition compared to set size 6, with an additional benefit for memorable faces, supporting our hypothesis that memorable faces require fewer resources to be maintained in VWM. Interestingly, when memorable faces were presented alongside forgettable ones (e.g., 3 memorable and 3 forgettable faces), memory for the memorable items improved, suggesting that memorable items pull resources away from other items competing for representation. Next, to examine whether memorability can be fully captured within VWM, we had participants perform a VLTM recognition task after completing the VWM task. Here, we found that the memorability effect overrode the array size effect such that memorable faces encoded in 6-face arrays were better recognized than forgettable faces encoded in 3-face arrays. This suggests that not only are memorable stimuli treated differently within VWM, they are also “stickier” than forgettable stimuli, showing less memory decay. Together, our results demonstrate that stimulus memorability emerges over multiple stages of memory.
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