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In the blink of an eye: Short-term visual memory article named “Year’s Best Paper”

Psychology doctoral students’ paper honored by Psychonomic Bulletin and Review

Jane Jacob

Do you remember the color of the car you parked next to yesterday morning?

Maybe not now, but for an instant you took note of that car.

This type of brief memory is called a short-term visual memory. Once your brain has determined that information is no longer necessary to store, it is gone.

A psychology graduate student is being recognized for her comprehensive analysis of how short-term visual memories are created and discarded.

Earlier this year, CLASS doctoral candidate Jane Jacob authored an article about the stages of visual short-term memories for the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. Her article, “Tracking the first two seconds: Three stages of visual information processing?” was named “Article of the Year” by the publication, a rare recognition for a student.

Psychonomic Bulletin & Review is considered to be the ‘flagship’ journal of the Psychonomic Society,” said Dr. Cathleen Moore, editor of Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. “Of the six Psychonomic Society journals, PBR is our general-readership journal. The work, therefore, has to appeal to a broader audience in its significance and its success of communication.”

Dr. Moore estimates that Jacob’s article was selected from approximately 100 articles the journal published throughout the year. Jacob’s article was based on work from her Master’s thesis about the stages of visual short-term memory.

“Visual short-term memory is traditionally thought of being composed of two different types of memory registers,” said Ms. Jacob. “The first is a very brief sensory memory, lasting 100-150 milliseconds after stimulus presentation and is able to hold a lot of visibly available items. The second, a more robust memory known as visual working memory, can only retain a few items but its duration is on the order of several seconds.”

However, while working with Melissa Treviño, the article’s co-author, and Dr. Bruno G. Breitmeyer, director of the UH Visual Cognition Lab, Ms. Jacob examined not just the traditional two stages, but also the transition stage that occurs when information is being transferred from the brief sensory memory into the visual working memory. Jacob says she and her co-authors were the first to comprehensively examine all three stages of memories.

“The significance of this third stage is that it a) transforms the sensory information held in iconic memory into a more abstract, schematic representation and b) transfers that representation to visual working memory,” said Dr. Breitmeyer.

“I don't think anyone has looked at these types of memory in the exhaustive manner in which we did,” said Ms. Jacob. “Our findings relate to other types of visual phenomena, and contribute to better understanding of post-stimulus processing (what happens after we see something).”

She’s worked in Dr. Breitmeyer’s lab for four years and during that time has advanced from the position of graduate research assistant to the current position of lab research coordinator, scheduling ongoing and helping to plan future research projects and providing mentoring to undergraduate research assistants.

“Throughout that time, she proved to be a hardworking, reliable and competent member of my research team,” Dr. Breitmeyer said.

In November, Ms. Jacob will travel to Toronto to attend the Psychonomic Society’s annual meeting and receive her award. One month later, she will graduate with a Ph.D. in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience.

“In the future I want to continue learning more about my field through research, and impart my knowledge to others,” said Ms. Jacob. “I would like to continue in academia and teach in a liberal-arts university/college setting, but I’m also interested in exploring the industry side, and working as a vision or human factors scientist.”