Your Object Memory Ability Might Be Better than You Thought

Your Object Memory Ability Might Be Better Than You Thought

Don’t give up on your memory the next time you can’t remember where you put your keys, parked your car, or put your glasses down. Previous research has found that when people are shown a large number of objects, they are very good at remembering which ones they saw.

And according to a new study, people are also surprisingly good at remembering where and when they saw those objects. Many observers could recall the location of over 100 items on a 7-by-7 grid, selecting the correct location or a cell right next to the correct one.

Three experiments conducted by Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a founding member of the Mass General Brigham healthcare system, show that people have a “spatial massive memory” (SMM) for where objects are located and a “temporal massive memory” (TMM) for when objects were last seen.

Spatial And Temporal Massive Memory

People usually believe that their memory is terrible, but these findings show that for a large number of objects, we can recall where and when an object appeared with good, if not perfect, precision.

“While our spatial and temporal memory for objects may not be as impressive as some birds or squirrels, who have to remember where they hid their food for the winter, our data show that we do have massive memory for objects,”

said corresponding author Jeremy Wolfe, Ph.D., of the Brigham’s Department of Surgery.

Wolfe and colleagues asked participants to remember a series of objects arranged on a 7-by-7 grid. A red square was placed around each item for two seconds to highlight it.

Location Memory Game

After showing the items to the participants, all of the objects were removed, and they were tested on their ability to recall if they had seen an item before and, if so, where it was located on the grid.

“In some ways, this is a bit like the game of Memory that many of us played as children, where we turned over a card and then tried to recall the location of a matching card that we had seen before,” said Wolfe. “But unlike in the children’s game, we didn’t just count the exact ‘correct’ answer. We measured how close the participant got to the previously seen image.”

300 distinct objects were seen by observers in total. Many observers could localize over 100 items to within +/- 1 cell of the actual object location.

A timeline was displayed on the screen in a later experiment, and participants were instructed to click on it to indicate when they had seen each object. In contrast to the 40% they could have guessed, participants localized 60–80% of the older items to within +/–10% of their correct time, according to the researchers.

Next Steps

The authors point out that additional research is required to determine the upper bounds of massive memory as well as to look into other issues like potential gender differences in memory.

According to Wolfe, some things are much easier for us to retain in our long-term memory than others. By understanding what we can recall most readily, such as images of objects and settings, we may be able to maximize our memory.

“Since ancient times, people have been using memory tricks related to our ability to remember pictures and scenes to help encode large amounts of information to store in their minds. In that sense, it’s not terribly surprising that, using our methods, we discover that we’re pretty good at remembering where objects are. Our experiments show that spatial and temporal massive memories exist. Future research will define their limits,”

said Wolfe.

  1. Jeremy M Wolfe, Spatial and Temporal Massive Memory in Humans, Current Biology (2023). Volume 33, Issue 2, P405-410.E4