Therole of semantic interference in limiting memory for the details of visual scenes

David Melcher, Brian Murphy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many studies suggest a large capacity memory for briefly presented pictures of whole scenes. At the same time, visual working memory (WM) of scene elements is limited to only a few items. We examined the role of retroactive interference in limiting memory for visual details. Participants viewed a scene for 5 s and then, after a short delay contain-ing either a blank screen or 10 distracter scenes, answered questions about the location, color, and identity of objects in the scene. We found that the influence of the distracters depended on whether they were from a similar semantic domain, such as "kitchen" or "airport." Increasing the number of similar scenes reduced, and eventually eliminated, memory for scene details. Although scene memory was firmly established over the initial study period, this memory was fragile and susceptible to interference. This may help to explain the discrepancy in the literature between studies showing limited visual WM and those showing a large capacity memory for scenes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberArticle 262
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberOCT
StatePublished - 2011


  • Scene perception
  • Visual memory
  • Working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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