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Words Sharpen Visual Memory, Study Finds

May 27, 2005

Children recalled objects better when given language cues

HealthDay News — Language may be a “glue” helping children and adults cement their visual memory of objects in the natural world, researchers conclude.

Visual memory depends on the brain’s visual system encoding and retrieving all the relevant features of an object so they can be called up later. It’s a part of everyday life — for example, in the way we remember the look and location of a set of keys left on a hallway table.

But experts know that certain visual properties of objects aren’t well remembered. This new research finds that matching the object with specific language cues can improve visual memory.

In the study, Johns Hopkins University doctoral candidate Banchiamlack Dessalegn and her mentor, Barbara Landau, Ph.D., a professor in the department of cognitive sciences, tested children to see if those given verbal cues while viewing mirror image visual patterns would remember them more accurately, and longer, than would children not given those cues.

“We found that things that kids have a hard time visually remembering can be glued into memory by specific language instruction,” Landau said.

The findings are scheduled to be presented Thursday at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Society in Los Angeles.

Objects that are complex in terms of color and location — such as a block colored red on its left side, green on its right — can be difficult to remember just by sight alone, Landau said. “If I show that to you and take it away, and give you samples to match, you are going to have a hard time remembering red on the left, green on the right,” she said.

That\’s because “it’s hard for the visual system to code [and remember] both color and location information at the same time,” she said.

In a series of experiments, the duo showed 22 four-year-olds cards on a computer screen bearing red and green vertical, horizontal and diagonal patterns that were mirror images of one another. The researchers asked the youngsters to “look at this and remember it,” and then took the cards away.

When the researchers presented the cards later on and asked the children to select the ones they had seen before, the kids were right just 60 percent of the time, Landau said.

But another experiment added a bit of language to the mix.

For example, the adult researcher instructed the children to “look at where the red part is. The red part is on the left.”

That experiment yielded the most success. “That specific piece of language helps them hold it in visual memory,” Landau said. “It serves as a sort of glue to help them remember.”

Another expert, Ann Senghas, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University, New York City, said the take-home message from this work is “that when we are constructing a visual memory we are not just using visual information, we can also use linguistic information.”

The research has some practical applications for everyday life, Senghas and Landau said. “If you want to effectively encode spatial relations, using language to articulate them will help you reconstruct them later,” Senghas said.

For instance, she says, if you are shown different blueprints and someone points to different parts, it probably wouldn’t help you remember the blueprint from memory later on. What might help is to look at the blueprint and then hear the architect say, “Note that the bedroom is to the left of the kitchen.”

It isn’t just language, but using very specific language information that helps, explained Landau. For example, suppose your child’s socks are in the right side of the drawer: Instead of just saying “Go get your socks,” say, “Go get your socks that are in the right-hand side of the bottom drawer.”

More information

Johns Hopkins University

Columbia University

To learn more about visual memory, visit the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (moodle.ed.uiuc.edu ).