The Power of Visual Memory

Recent research by Professor Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire has shown the astounding powers of recall of the visual memory.

Experiments involving testing the brain’s power of recall of visual images exposed in blocks of 200 every ten minutes show a degree of accuracy of 94 %, matching the results of a study in Canada in 1973, where subjects recognised an average of 98% of a series of 612 pictures. In the recent test, subjects were shown 16 pairs of images after a block of 800, and had to recognise the one image out of each pair that had been previously exposed. In most cases, interestingly enough, the brain seemed to recognise the “odd one out” - the image that hadn’t been previously exposed - rather than identify the one which was familiar. In an extended version of the same test, where subjects had to recognise the correct image in each of 130 pairs, after being exposed to 9,200 images, subjects still scored 65%, which, although lower, is still a remarkable level of accuracy given the greatly increased amount of information that had been processed before the test. This lower score also mirrored the 1973 research, where the average score after 10,000 images was 70% recall.

In his book, “Quirkology, The Curious Science of Everyday Lives” (Macmillan 2008), professor Wiseman writes “These results ... show how effortlessly we take in visual information, often without realising it”. Our power of visual recall, he suggests, is necessary for us to cope with our environment. “We have to take in loads of visual information to get around and recognise our surroundings”

Professor Wiseman’s research suggests that we stand a much better chance of remembering names and lists if we associate them with images. “We don’t process verbal information anything like as efficiently,” he writes.

There is a significant amount of anecdotal evidence of the power of the brain to recall visual detail, which this research confirms. The implications for teaching and learning are not to be ignored: the more we can set information in a visual context, the more likely it is to be remembered.