Memories are among the things that shape our identity. But what determines what we remember and don’t remember? Our memory is based to a large degree on visual perception and to date, researchers have assumed that images are recalled based on their content, their uniqueness, or their familiarity.
They did not ascribe importance to physical features such as the size of the picture, since we identify a face, for example, with the same degree of precision whether it appears on a passport or splashed across a billboard on the highway.
But according to a new study, size really does matter. According to the study conducted in the laboratory of Dr. Sharon Gilaie-Dotan of the School of Optometry and Vision Science and the Gonda Brain Research Center in Bar Ilan University, large pictures were recalled 1.5 times better than small ones. The findings were published last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
In visual memory studies, the subjects are usually asked to perform a task relating to the pictures shown to them, which affects visual processing. In the new present study, conducted by doctoral students Shaimaa Masarwa and Olga Kreichman, the subjects were asked only to look at the pictures, without knowing that a memory task would come.
In the first stage they were shown 160 pictures of different sizes. In the second stage they were shown 320 pictures, all the same size, including the pictures from the first stage of the experiment and additional pictures not seen before. The subjects were asked to note which pictures they had already seen.
It was found that the subjects had better recollection of the large pictures, regardless of their resolution or the amount of information they included.
“Because the finding contradicts the thesis commonly accepted in the scientific world, we performed a series of seven experiments, with a large number of subjects,” Gilaie-Dotan says.
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In one of control experiment designed to examine whether size rather than detail is what really counts, the researchers displayed large blurry pictures and discovered that they were etched in memory better than small, clear pictures with an identical number of details.
Thus the study concluded that visual memory of images is influenced by the size of the picture on the retina.
One possible explanation is that the larger the picture, the greater the number of processing resources in the retina and in visual areas of the brain that are required. It is also possible that large pictures cause a relatively large number of eye movements and arouse more attention and interest, which contribute to remembering them.
Gilaie-Dotan says that the findings are likely to have implications on the quality of information processing based on the size of the screen on which it appears. For example, if you look at a computer or smartphone screen, there is likely to be a difference in the information processing that results. The researchers intend to examine this in a follow-up study.
Another question is whether size also influences memory of text, not picture. “Today in high schools the students receive textbooks in an electronic format, and also study from them occasionally from their smartphones. My son even studied for his matriculation exam on the phone,” says Gitaie-Dotan. “Although the screen is very available and accessible, in effect the quality of studying may be inferior to what it would be had it taken place in front of a larger screen. That’s also a matter that requires examination.”
Also, perhaps the findings apply beyond vision. “With the other senses too, there’s a question as to whether stronger stimulation will be processed better and will be etched more strongly in our memory,” says Gilaie-Dotan. “For example, it’s possible that we’ll remember information better when it’s heard at a high volume, as long as it’s within a normal range.”
She adds that evidently, our visual memory is not particularly strong. In the present experiment, in which subjects were asked only to look at pictures, in a manner that simulates ordinary viewing, the subjects recalled a maximum of 65 percent of the pictures. That said: people very widely in their recollection ability.