Iconic Memory And How It Works

Updated May 31, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Memory Plays A Crucial Role In Our Ability To Function

Iconic memory is just one component of your overall memory function, but it plays an important role in your ability to interpret the world around you. Typically lasting only milliseconds, iconic memory helps you process what you see and use that information to form new memories. Below, we’re discussing iconic memory, its functions, and how it works. 

What Is Iconic Memory?

Iconic memory is the form of sensory memory—memory responsible for storing short-term impressions and sensations—related to visual stimuli.

Sensory memory is ultra-short-term memory that lasts only milliseconds for most people. Because snap impressions of scenes are used to round out perceptions and reach conclusions regarding visual cues, iconic memory can be vital to our ability to interpret our surroundings and determine when things are askew.

Some people confuse iconic memory with photographic memory. While there is little evidence that photographic memory is a real phenomenon, iconic memory is a proven component of memory function, with a wide body of research confirming its existence. Photographic memory is the ability to see something and remember it from a brief image alone. Iconic memory is simply your brain's way of processing visual information via the initial display of any given visual stimuli.

 suggest that iconic memory does not last long. You can experience iconic memory through a simple exercise. Close your eyes for a few seconds, then open them for one or two seconds (just long enough to focus on an object), and then close them again. For a very brief time, you should continue to see the image in your mind's eye. That is iconic memory at work, keeping the image intact for a brief time after the stimulus is no longer present.

Persistence And Iconic Memory

Persistence refers to the continuation of a visual impression even after the stimuli have passed. It is thought to be the main mechanism underlying the function of iconic memory. Three types of persistence have been implicated in visual stimuli and iconic memory tasks: neural persistence, visible persistence, and informational persistence. 

Neural persistence occurs when your neural activity continues after the stimuli are gone. Visible persistence is when you continue to see the image after it is gone, such as with a bright flash of light. Informational persistence is when information about the visual stimuli is still available to you for some time after the stimuli are gone. 

Informational persistence is a primary aspect of iconic memory. Informational persistence has distinct properties from visible or neural persistence, as both visible and neural persistence rely heavily upon the visual cortex. Informational persistence does not rely as heavily on the visual cortex, as it converts the visual display to abstract ideas and information instead of a simple image.

Researchers once believed that these three forms of visual persistence rely upon one another and are the source of visual information relayed after stimuli are no longer available. However, new research has found that this is not the case. According to recent studies, two phenomena consistently occur with visual stimuli: the inverse duration effect, in which the longer a stimulus lasts, the briefer its persistence after stimulus offset; and the inverse intensity effect, which describes the duration of persistence based on the strength of the stimulus. 

Temporal Characteristics Of Iconic Memory

Iconic memory decays rapidly after the visual stimulus is no longer present. Iconic memory is regarded by most to allow for the perceptual integration of two or more images, even if separated by a brief period. Many studies have been conducted to determine the duration of iconic memory, usually after the stimulus has been removed (called stimulus offset).

One study hypothesized that iconic memory has a set temporal property starting from the onset of the visual stimulus, regardless of how long the stimulus is displayed. This would account for the inverse action of the iconic memory lasting for a briefer period with a longer duration. The previous studies measured the duration of iconic memory from stimulus offset, but this measures it from stimulus onset.

The new study's results seem conclusive, showing that regardless of how long visual stimulus is displayed, iconic memory has a fairly set duration. Most often, the duration of iconic memory is less than one second. Only when iconic memory is put into context in the brain and relegated to short-term memory does the information persist beyond the single second associated with visual short-term memory.

Iconic Memory’s Journey Through The Brain

The primary part of the brain that is involved in iconic memory is the occipital lobe, which is home to the primary visual cortex. The occipital lobe and its primary visual cortex are responsible for processing and controlling visual information. The visual stimulus travels from the visual system of the eyes to the occipital lobe, where it is stored for mere milliseconds, before being discarded or transferred to the temporal lobe. The hippocampus within the temporal lobe is primarily responsible for converting that memory from short-term to long-term memory.

The path of visual memory is one that is traveled extremely quickly. Iconic memory, visual working memory, and short-term memory have limited capacities and brief temporal characteristics, some of them housed within the primary visual cortex. Only by moving information all the way through the process to long-term memory can visual stimuli be remembered for more than a few minutes; iconic memory requires attention and focus to transfer information to longer-term memory banks.

The first thing that must happen, of course, is for visual stimuli to be presented. The visual system and the occipital lobe process visual stimulus. Automatic recognition occurs, and it is then placed into iconic memory. This happens very quickly—said to occur in as little as one second in iconic memory and less than one minute in visual working memory.

Once the stimulus has initially been presented, iconic memory begins. The automatic recognition of the visual stimulus display is processed by the occipital lobe and transferred to iconic memory, where it remains for only milliseconds before being transferred to visual working memory or being discarded.

From iconic memory, the information moves to visual working memory. This is like an extremely short-term memory in vision and visual stimuli. Visual working memory can last for several seconds. For information to move to visual working memory, the subject must have focused attention on the visual display or set of information.

The short-term memory lasts only a few minutes and has limited capacity. With focused attention and interrelated memories and thought, visual working memory can be transferred to short-term memory. There, the information remains for several minutes before being discarded or being shuffled along to long-term memory. If information from iconic memory is to last beyond a few minutes, it needs to be stored in long-term memory.

Memory Plays A Crucial Role In Our Ability To Function

Storage Of Iconic Memory

Many studies have been done to determine the rate of transfer of information from iconic memory to long-term memory. Most studies have found that it takes significant attention for our brains to store iconic memory. Without focused attention, the iconic memory fades rapidly and is not put into a context that commits it to more long-term memory. 

The amount of information that can be moved from iconic memory to long-term storage is limited by the capacity of the short-term memory and the availability of iconic memory. One study showed that iconic memory, with attention, could be transferred to visual working memory, which lasts several seconds. This memory in turn only lasts seconds, less than a full minute, without being transferred again to long-term memory. 

Online Therapy For Memory-Related Emotional Challenges

If you struggle to remember things you have seen, you might be experiencing early memory loss in visual areas. Memory impairment has been connected to mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. So, managing the emotional effects of memory loss can be important. 

Studies show that online therapy can help individuals reduce the negative emotional and cognitive effects of memory impairment. In one study, participants displayed improvements in memory and mood following an online therapy program. These results can be added to those of an increasingly large number of studies that point to the efficacy of online therapy for a range of mental health and cognitive challenges. 

If you’re struggling to process emotions related to memory loss or similar challenges, online therapy can help. For those experiencing memory loss, it may be difficult to keep track of appointments. With online therapy through BetterHelp, you can be frequently reminded of upcoming sessions and schedule appointments at times that are most compatible with your cognitive function. Your therapist can also connect you with useful resources, such as articles about memory or at-home memory-enhancing exercises. 


Iconic memory plays an integral role in our interpretation of the world around us. Experiencing impairments in this form of memory can affect our ability to function. If you’re living with mental health challenges due to memory loss or similar concerns, know that help is available. Connecting with a licensed therapist online can be the first step toward improved cognitive and emotional health.

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