The Persistences of Vision

M. Coltheart


Human observers continue to experience a visual stimulus for some time after the offset of that stimulus. The neural activity evoked by a visual stimulus continues for some time after its offset. The information extracted from a visual stimulus continues to be registered in a visual form of memory ('iconic memory') for some time after its offset. We may thus distinguish three distinct senses in which a visual stimulus may be said to persist after its physical offset: there is phenomenological persistence, neural persistence and informational persistence. Various assumptions have been made about the relation between these three forms of visual persistence. The most frequent assumption is that they correspond simply to three different methods for studying a single entity. Detailed consideration of what is known about the properties of these three forms of persistence suggests, however, that this assumption is not correct. It can reasonably be proposed that visible persistence is the phenomenological correlate of neural persistence occurring at various stages of the visual system: photoreceptors, ganglion cells and the stereopsis system. Iconic memory, on the other hand, does not correspond to visible persistence, nor to neural persistence in any stage of the visual system. Recent work, in fact, suggests that iconic memory is a property of some relatively late stage in the visual information-processing system, rather than being a peripheral sensory buffer store. This suggestion raises some fundamental theoretical issues concerning the psychology of visual perception, issues with which cognitive psychology has yet to come to grips.

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