Psychologists found amnesia for object attributes

People fail at remembering even basic information about objects they were looking at

- news | March 4, 2015

On January 28, 2015 Psychological Science published a paper “Amnesia for Object Attributes: Failure to Report Attended Information That Had Just Reached Conscious Awareness” describing experiments that indicate how little visual information people can assimilate. We have asked the authors of this research, Prof. Brad Wyble and Dr. Hui Chen from the Pennsylvania State University, to comment on this work.

The Study

As exemplified by the adage “seeing is believing”, many people believe that they will remember the details of their own visual experience, especially the information that they were paying attention to. However, our study shows that human memory is more selective than previously thought. It seems that people have to switch on their memory to remember things regardless of whether they pay attention to them or not. Otherwise, they will experience “attribute amnesia”, a particular case of failing to remember information that was attended, but not with an expectation that it would need to be remembered. For example, in our study we showed participants one letter and three digits on the screen and asked them to identify the location of the letter. This test was extremely easy and participants seldom made a mistake. After several repetitions of this test, we gave them an unexpected question: can you recognize which letter you just saw? Surprisingly, participants’ performance on this surprise test was nearly at chance. The same finding was replicated using other kinds of information such as colors and numbers. We think that this particular form of amnesia is indicative of how our memory filters out information that is not important for pursuing our goals.


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It is difficult for people to believe how easy it is not see something that is right in front of their eyes. We have this bizarre illusion that vision is a perfect sense and we should be able to remember everything that we see. However if I were to show you two superimposed movies and asked you to attend to one of them, you would remember hardly anything about the other movie. This was demonstrated by Neisser & Becklen in 1975, and then extended to other paradigms by Mack & Rock and also Simons & Chabris. The most famous example of this is the “gorilla video”, in which people fail to see a gorilla walking through a basketball game when they focused their attention on the players. Based on these findings, we assumed, like most do, that attention is the key variable which determines whether you will remember something. Therefore we were quite amazed to find in one of our experiments where we asked people unexpected questions about information they had just attended to, that they could not report even basic information, such as color. We realized that the expectation to remember is perhaps even more important than attention in determining the contents of memory, especially when one is doing the same task repeatedly. Over the course of about a year, we distilled this idea into a simple experimental procedure that reliably produces the attribute amnesia effect, which we have been using to study how expectation affects memory.

Future Direction

We think that attribute amnesia is a striking phenomenon which raises many interesting questions that are worth investigating in the future. For example, we are currently trying to see how this effect emerges when using images and movies of real-world objects that are observed for prolonged periods of time. Furthermore, we are investigating exactly what happens to the missing information. Specifically, we are trying to discover whether participants are simply not encoding the attended information into memory, or are storing it, but then rapidly forgetting it. Another direction that we are currently pursuing is to explore whether older adults are as good at not remembering irrelevant information as are their younger counterparts. It may be the case that older adults actually remember more information in these experiments, which would suggest that their memory system adjusts its filters more slowly and carefully.

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Ph.D., Postdoctoral Researcher, Department of Psychology, The Pennsylvania State University
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