Long-term episodic memory depends on the retention of associative information, such as the relationship between a friend's face and his name, a home and its neighborhood, and a mint and its odor. How many of these associative links can be stored and recalled? Many have considered memory's capacity, but relevant data are scant. Some previous experiments on humans have assessed the retention of thousands of visual impressions using forced-choice picture recognition and have concluded that there are virtually no constraints on how much information can be successfully retained. However, no previous experiments on humans have investigated the capacity of associative memory. I describe the first relevant data, which I obtained by systematically probing my own capacity during 58,560 memory trials for picture-response associations (approximately 1 year of testing). Estimated capacity was on the order of several thousand associations, and this and other indicators of memory function were remarkably similar to those obtained for baboons (Papio papio) under comparable circumstances. These findings, along with other data, suggest conservation of long-term memory mechanisms and effectiveness in humans relative to nonhuman primates, despite at least 20 million years of divergent evolution and vastly different behavioral and cognitive repertoires. The present findings also indicate that the associative processes that support our ability to remember episodes are limited in capacity relative to processes that support picture recognition.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
- Developmental and Educational Psychology
- Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)