Lifetime of human visual sensory memory: Properties and neural substrate
A new psychophysical procedure was designed to efficiently characterize partial-report performance and a model was developed to isolate the transient visual sensory memory (VSM) component (also known as iconic memory ) in the performance. The decay of VSM in each subject was well fit with an exponential function thus a lifetime could be characterized for the decay in each subject. It was found that intensive practice with partial-report task prolonged VSM lifetime. This practice effect reveals an unexpected adaptive property of the VSM system as well as a novel dimension of perceptual learning. Of the stimulus parameters, a change of the mean luminance of the stimuli from that of the background shortened the VSM lifetime. Such a “luminance effect” is consistent with the temporal properties of the spatial frequency channels in the visual pathway, most likely revealing the differences in the time course of the decay of the memory traces in these channels.
To identify the neural substrate of VSM, the lifetime for the decay of the neural activation trace in the human primary visual cortex (area V1) were deduced from the visually evoked potential (VEP) recordings for each subject. There was a precise match between the V1 lifetime and the VSM lifetime for each subject. The match held when both psychophysical and physiological lifetimes were prolonged by practice, or shortened by enhancing the mean luminance of the stimuli above the background. This precise match indicates that the cortical location for VSM is V1.