No Fixed Limit for Storing Simple Visual Features: Realistic Objects Provide an Efficient Scaffold for Holding Features in Mind
Prominent theories of visual working memory postulate that the capacity to maintain a particular visual feature is fixed. In contrast to these theories, recent studies have demonstrated that meaningful objects are better remembered than simple, nonmeaningful stimuli. Here, we tested whether this is solely because meaningful stimuli can recruit additional features—and thus more storage capacity—or whether simple visual features that are not themselves meaningful can also benefit from being part of a meaningful object. Across five experiments (30 young adults each), we demonstrated that visual working memory capacity for color is greater when colors are part of recognizable real-world objects compared with unrecognizable objects. Our results indicate that meaningful stimuli provide a potent scaffold to help maintain simple visual feature information, possibly because they effectively increase the objects’ distinctiveness from each other and reduce interference.