Drawing out visual memories



If you close your eyes and try to remember something you saw earlier today, what exactly do you see? Can you visualize the right things in the right places? Are there certain key objects that stand out the most? Are you misremembering things that weren’t really there?

Visual memory for natural images has typically been studied with recognition experiments, in which subjects have to recognize whether an image is one they have seen before or not. But recognition is quite different from freely recalling a memory (without being shown it again), and can involve different neural mechanisms. How can we study visual recall, testing whether the mental images people are recalling are correct?

One way option is to have subjects give verbal descriptions of what they remember, but this might not capture all the details of their mental representation, such as the precise relationships between the objects or whether their imagined viewpoint of the scene is correct. Instead, NIMH researchers Elizabeth Hall, Wilma Bainbridge, and Chris Baker had subjects draw photographs from memory, and then analyzed the contents of those drawings.

This is a creative but challenging approach, since it requires quantitatively characterizing how well the drawings (all 1,728!) match the original photographs. They crowdsource this task using Amazon Mechanical Turk, getting high-quality ratings that include: how well can the original photograph be identified based on the drawing, what objects were correctly drawn, what objects were falsely remembered as being in the image, and how close the objects were to their correct locations. There are also “control” drawings made by subjects with full information (that get to look at the image while they draw) or minimal information (just a category label) that were rated for comparison.

The punchline is that subjects can remember many of the images, and produce surprisingly detailed drawings that are quite similar to those drawn by the control group that could look at the pictures. They reproduce the majority of the objects, place them in roughly the correct locations, and draw very few incorrect objects, making it very easy to match the drawings with the original photographs. The only systematic distortion is that the drawings depicted the scenes as being slightly farther away than they actually were, which nicely replicates previous results on boundary extension.

This is a neat task that subjects are remarkably good at (which is not always the case in memory experiments!), and could be a great tool for investigating the neural mechanisms of naturalistic perception and memory. Another intriguing SfN presentation showed that is possible to have subjects draw while in an fMRI scanner, allowing this paradigm to be used in neuroimaging experiments. I wonder if this approach could also be extended into drawing comic strips of remembered events that unfold over time, or to illustrate mental images based on stories told through audio or text.