Vision Over Space and Time

Have you ever tried to remember where your missing keys are by retracing your steps through the house, performing the same actions you did when you last saw your keys? Or closed your eyes while trying to recall an old house? These actions of attempting to recreate what you saw while viewing a particular scene or participating in a particular activity allow us to re-experience the original experience. 

We tend to mentally recreate the experience of seeing that thing we wish to remember...

Here is another example. When using a touch-screen Automated Teller Machine (ATM) for the first time, each new input by pressing a finger against the screen prompts a new series of active areas, with buttons appearing in various places across the display depending on the string of decisions that we make about whether to deposit or withdraw money, access our savings or checking accounts, or to print out a statement or terminate the transaction. This first encounter often results in an attentive, deliberate approach to surveying all available options at each phase of the transaction process; we are particularly aware of the way each new screen presents a new set of alternatives and we take our time in selecting the appropriate function — after all, it is our money. After several uses of the ATM, however, we begin to familiarize ourselves with how we are to behave in order to get what we want out of the machine, knowing that first we have to input our Personal Identification Number, waiting until the system verifies that we are allowed access to the account associated with the card we’ve inserted into the machine. Next we express that we want to deposit money, then specify that the money should go into our savings account. We enter the amount to be deposited, then follow the prompts to place the money-filled envelope into the deposit intake, and wait until the screen asks us whether we’d like to perform any other transactions today. As our familiarity with this process matures, many of us have found ourselves hovering a finger over the area where the button we want to press will appear in the next screen. We’ve memorized not only where the button is, but when it will appear — how?

Jennifer Ryan and Christina Villate of the Rotman Research Institute in Ontario, Canada, offer an explanation that focuses on the role that vision plays in recalling where things are located and when they appear in those locations. According to their research, the way we move our eyes when observing a scene may be the conduit by which information is integrated into lasting memory representation, and subsequently how present information is compared to what is stored in our memory |Ryan, 2009|. Their studies used eye-tracking equipment and a computer-screen-based display to monitor how our eyes looked at the placement of a series of objects (spatial relationships) and the order in which those objects appeared (temporal relationships). The tests were structured as follows: participants viewed a computer screen that displayed one object (object A) then that object disappeared. Moments later a second object (object B) appeared in another location on the screen. Again, object B disappeared and a third object (object C) was displayed on the screen. After a pause, all three objects were displayed at once and the participant was tasked with determining if the final image displayed all objects (A, B, and C) in their same locations relative to the others. In some trials, the spatial relationships were maintained (ex: A is above B, which is to the left of C) while in others the arrangement was changed (ex: A is now below B, which is still to the left of C).

While the results showed that participants were very successful at determining whether the final image had been manipulated or not, the eye-tracking data revealed the most interesting results. At each stage of the display sequence (ex: when object B was displayed), participants directed visual attention to the new object as well as the area where the previous object was located. According to Ryan and Villate, “Transitions to an already sampled region may serve to recall that information from memory, or at least maintain it in an active state, so that it may be bound together with the target of the subsequent fixation”|Ryan, 2009|. In addition, when the final image was of a manipulated spatial arrangement of the three objects, viewing to the empty regions which should have contained objects — had the relative relations been maintained — increased. Ryan and Villate attribute this spatial re-checking to a disruption of eye movement re-enactments of temporal order, meaning that the way a participant scanned the final, manipulated image did not match the way they had experienced the locations of the three individual objects |Ryan,2009|.

Where is the refrigerator in your home? Where can you find the bread at your local grocery store? How do you get from the post office to the park, and then back home? While thinking about the answers to these questions did you mentally visualize their specific locations? Perhaps you retraced the paths you take (either on foot or by vehicle) to get to each of those destinations — if so, you’ve just proven what Ryan and Villate proposed in their research: 

“Eye movement patterns elicited during imagery of a previously studied (but now absent) array largely resembled the eye movement pattern observed during viewing when the array was present, suggesting that eye movements serve to activate portions of the remembered scene and arrange those activated portions into their proper location with the (imagined) scene” |Ryan, 2009|.

When recalling visual information, we tend to mentally recreate the experience of seeing that thing we wish to remember and in doing so, our cognitive systems are working in conjunction with our visual system to piece together that memory.