Cognitive Daily

ResearchBlogging.orgYesterday’s post showed that our memory for objects depends on the background information available when we first see the object: If you see a toy in a room, you remember it better later if you see it again in the room. Being in the same position in a blank picture of the room doesn’t help.

So what about the scene is helping us remember the object? It could be things in the immediate area of the object: are we remembering the precise object/background relationship? In our example, maybe we’re remembering exactly how the propeller and the gear interact with the background:


In 2003, Hollingworth had conducted a study that tested just this premise. He tested viewers on pictures both with and without backgrounds, where the immediate area around the relevant object was changed to a uniform color in both cases (see the picture below for how this works). When the background from the original picture was visible, viewers were still more accurate identifying the objects. It seems that the area right around an object isn’t what helps us remember it.

So Hollingworth designed a new study where the object being tested was moved to a new location in the picture, like this:


As before, viewers were shown a scene with many small objects in it, like the marina above, for 20 seconds. Then a random pattern was shown to clear the visual short-term memory. Then one of six possible test images was shown. One object was now highlighted with a circle, which obscured the immediate background of the scene. This image was shown for four seconds, then swapped with another version of the same image, showing the object either rotated or substituted with a similar object. As in yesterday’s experiments, viewers had to say which of the two test images matched the original.

The key to this experiment is that half the time the object-to-be-recalled was in a different position in the scene. Do viewers remember the object as well when it’s in a different position? Here are the results:


Viewers were significantly worse at noticing when an object had been rotated or swapped with another object after it was moved to a different location in the scene.

Hollingworth says this suggests that the location of an object within a scene is a key component of our memory for that object. But he stops short of the claim that location is the only factor responsible for differences in visual memory. It might, for example, be the locations of objects relative to other within the scene, not the location of an individual object, which aids recall.

This effect can also explain something I’ve noticed when teaching: it’s hard for me to remember the names of students if they sit in a different part of the classroom from usual. Have you ever noticed that? Do you have another example of this phenomenon at work? Let us know in the comments.

Andrew Hollingworth (2006). Scene and Position Specificity in Visual Memory for Objects. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 32 (1), 58-69 DOI: 10.1037/0278-7393.32.1.58


  1. #1 Donna B.
    December 13, 2008

    I’m not sure if this is related, but I have difficulty recognizing people outside of the location I came to know them in. This includes co-workers and extended family.

  2. #2 gs
    December 13, 2008

    Not sure this happens a lot to most people, but it’s hard to find information you’re looking for in a different printing than what you read. For example, if you read an article on lexis nexus and then go read the actual print version the text is not positioned the same on the pages.

  3. #3 fivekitten
    December 16, 2008

    I would seriously use these results to evaluate the implications this study would have for children having difficulty reading, word recognition in relation to the environment the word is displayed, context, how these results would apply to previous theories of various word learning and reading theories, etc. etc.

  4. #4 acm
    December 30, 2008

    am reminded of research on honeybee navigation, which indicates that they recall their destinations (where they found a food source) by triangulating from objects in the visual scene (including the horizon and major landmarks). perhaps it’s not surprising that we do the same…

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