Using the flicker task to estimate visual working memory storage capacity

Hrag Pailian, Daniel J. Simons, Jeffrey Wetherhold, Justin Halberda

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Studies of visual working memory (VWM) typically have used a “one-shot” change detection task to arrive at a capacity estimate of three to four objects, with additional limits imposed by the precision of the information needed for each object. Unlike the one-shot task, the flicker change detection task permits measurement of VWM capacity over time and with larger numbers of objects present in the scene, but it has rarely been used to assess the capacity of VWM. We used the flicker task to examine (a) whether capacity is close to the typical three to four items when using subtly different stimuli; (b) which dependent measure provides the most meaningful estimate of the capacity of VWM in the flicker task (response time or number of changes viewed); (c) whether capacity remains fixed at three to four items for displays containing many more objects; and (d) how VWM operates over time, with repeated opportunities to encode, retain, and compare elements in a display. Four experiments using grids of simple items varying only in luminance or color revealed a range for VWM capacity limits that was largely impervious to changes in display duration, interstimulus intervals, and array size. This estimate of VWM capacity was correlated with an estimate from the more typical one-shot task, further validating the flicker task as a tool for measuring the capacity of VWM.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1271-1289
Number of pages19
JournalAttention, Perception, and Psychophysics
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1 2020


  • Capacity
  • Change detection
  • Memory
  • Proximity
  • Similarity
  • Top-down
  • VSTM
  • Visual working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Sensory Systems
  • Linguistics and Language


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