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Memory Mostly for Meaning

Although mental imagery can be vivid and detailed, most people have rather poor memory for the details of a picture. We remember mostly the meaning of a picture, not details. Baggett (1975) showed that detailed picture memory fades over several days. She showed subjects a short cartoon in one of two versions. One she called the explicit version. It showed a longhaired person getting hair cut. The other she called the implicit version. It showed no actual hair cutting. However, it did show a person walking out of a barbershop with shorter hair. After showing one or the other version to her subjects, Baggett waited various lengths of time then asked subjects whether a test picture, showing hair being cut, appeared in the original sequence.

How did Baggett investigate memory for pictures? What did she discover?


The "implicit" version did not show hair being cut in the study sequence.

For up to three days, subjects who received the implicit version knew they had not seen the test picture. However, after three days, they were likely to believe they had seen the hair being cut, even though they had not. Why? It was consistent with the story told by the pictures. When someone walks out of a hair salon with shorter hair, one infers that hair was cut. Baggett concluded that after three days the subjects lost their memories for the images themselves. They mostly remembered the meaning of those images and found the test item familiar because it was consistent with the meaning of the images.

In summary, it appears that most people can generate mental images and manipulate them like "little models" as Kosslyn put it. However, mental images are usually lost after a few days, and we remember only the meaning of an image.


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