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192 Opinion TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences Vol.5 No.

5 May 2001

Implicit memory: be noted that some researchers have made the

classification on the basis of the obtained data
(e.g. Ref. 3), such that for a task to be described as

intention and perceptual, higher data driven scores should be

shown, and vice versa for conceptual tasks.]
Briefly, a test engages perceptual processes when

awareness revisited performance involves the analysis of stimulus form

(e.g. identifying words), and conceptual processes
when performance involves the analysis of stimulus
meaning (e.g. producing category exemplars). Both
Laurie T. Butler and Dianne C. Berry types of task can be contrasted with explicit memory
tasks (e.g. recall, recognition) in that no instruction is
given to think back intentionally to an earlier study
One of the major developments in memory research in the past decade or so list. Rather participants carry out a seemingly
has been a growing interest in implicit memory – task performance that is not unrelated task that can be completed without
accompanied by conscious or intentional recollection. In this article, we reference to the study episode. Thus, following
examine evidence for perceptual and conceptual implicit memory, using the exposure to a study list (e.g. including the word
accepted definitions, and suggest that there is in fact a lack of strong evidence elephant), participants might be asked to respond
for implicit memory in normal subjects. If more convincing evidence cannot with the first word that comes to mind to a series of
be obtained, one solution might be to modify the current terminology. We word stems (e.g. ele-); or produce examples for various
suggest that the term implicit memory might have outgrown its usefulness as categories (e.g. animals). In each case, priming is
an overall descriptor. observed; that is a greater proportion of studied words
is produced, relative to non-studied ones.
Over the past 15 years there has been a phenomenal
growth in the number of studies investigating implicit The contamination problem
memory. This interest can be traced to Schacter1 In recent years the issue of contamination by explicit
(see also Ref. 2) who in a seminal paper defined the memory processes has become increasingly
phenomenon as being ‘revealed when previous prominent in discussions of implicit memory4,5.
experiences facilitate performance on a task that does There are two distinct ways in which an implicit
not require conscious or intentional recollection of memory task can be contaminated: firstly,
those experiences’ (Ref. 1, p. 501). Accordingly, to be participants might adopt an intentional retrieval
described as a demonstration of implicit memory, strategy (i.e. deliberately retrieve study words).
two conditions should be satisfied: (1) performance Secondly, participants might be phenomenally aware
reflects an unintentional retrieval strategy, and (i.e. possess knowledge that retrieved test words are
(2) performance is not accompanied by conscious study list ones). [Schacter et al.6 provide a set of
recollection. Ensuring that these conditions are met scenarios to illustrate the subtle ways in which
has proved to be difficult, especially in studies using intention and awareness might interact and
normal participants. After outlining this problem in influence implicit task performance.]
greater detail, we review studies of implicit memory, Although many studies have used patient groups
specifically repetition priming, that have met one or where recourse to intentional retrieval strategies,
both of these conditions. We consider evidence and presumably conscious recollection, is reduced or
pertaining to perceptual and well as conceptual absent, there is a real concern that the performance of
implicit memory tasks, and seek to address three normal participants on implicit memory tasks might
main questions: (1) are there convincing examples be contaminated in one or both of these ways. Thus,
of implicit memory performance in normal performance could reflect an intentional retrieval
participants; (2) should we be concerned that many strategy (normally accompanied by awareness), or
studies do not meet both conditions for demonstrating alternatively an unintentional retrieval strategy
implicit memory; and (3) how useful is the term accompanied by awareness. Distinguishing between
implicit memory as an overall descriptor? these and genuine cases of implicit memory
(i.e. unintentional and unconscious) presents a
Methods for measuring implicit memory considerable challenge.
Numerous procedures exist for studying implicit This article is primarily concerned with
memory (e.g. word stem completion, perceptual methodological issues. However, some orientating
Laurie T. Butler* identification). Although many would be classified as background information on relevant theoretical
Dianne C. Berry
Dept of Psychology,
testing perceptual implicit memory there is a explanations of implicit memory is provided in Box 1.
University of Reading, growing number of conceptual implicit memory tasks
Earley Gate, (e.g. category exemplar production, word-cued Approaches to contamination
Whiteknights, Reading,
association). This perceptual/conceptual distinction is Researchers have developed a number of approaches
*e-mail: l.t.butler@ made on the basis of the task’s processing demands to address the problem of contamination (see Box 2). and is an important means of classification. [It should In the following sections we review evidence for 1364-6613/01/$ – see front matter © 2001 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved. PII: S1364-6613(00)01636-3
Opinion TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences Vol.5 No.5 May 2001 193

Box 1. Theoretical explanations of implicit memory

Although a number of theories have been between different forms of conceptual not clear at what stage observed patterns
proposed to explain implicit memory processes are necessary. Recent of findings require the specification of a
phenomenaa,b, two have been especially proposals include a distinction between new memory system.
prominent in explaining dissociations competitive and non-competitive
between implicit and explicit memory tasks: conceptual processesd and one between
a Ratcliff, R. and McKoon, G. (1997) A counter
relational and item specific processinge. model for implicit priming in perceptual word
Transfer-appropriate processing identification. Psychol. Rev. 104, 319–343
This account emphasizes the importance Perceptual representation system b Postle, B.R. and Corkin, S. (1999) Manipulation
of the match between processes at This account proposes that priming of familiarity reveals a necessary lexical
component of the word-stem completion
encoding and retrievalc. Furthermore, the reflects the operation of a perceptual
priming effect. Mem. Cognit. 27, 12–25
framework distinguishes between two representation system that functions c Roediger, H.L. et al. (1989) Explaining
classes of cognitive processes: perceptual independently of the episodic memory dissociations between implicit and explicit
processes (i.e. analysis of stimulus form) system believed to support explicit measures of retention: a processing account.
and conceptual processes (i.e. analysis of memory performancef. The perceptual Varieties of Memory and Consciousness: Essays
in Honour of Endel Tulving (Roediger, H.L. and
stimulus meaning). Dissociations are representation system comprises three
Craik, F.I.M, eds), pp. 3–41, Erlbaum
predicted between implicit and explicit domain-specific subsystems (visual word- d Vaidya, C.J. et al. (1997) Evidence for multiple
memory tasks to the extent that they form system, auditory word-form system, mechanisms of conceptual priming on implicit
typically engage perceptual and structural description system) dedicated memory tests. J. Exp. Psychol. Learn. Mem.
conceptual processes, respectively. to the processing and representation of Cognit. 23, 1324–1343
e Mulligan, N.W. et al. (1999) The effects of levels
Although successful in accounting for information concerning the form and
of processing and organization on conceptual
experimental data, for normal subjects at structure of words and objects. implicit memory in the category exemplar
least, recent evidence of dissociations The approach has been particularly production test. Mem. Cognit. 27, 633–647
between conceptual implicit and explicit useful for integrating findings from both f Tulving, E. and Schacter, D.L. (1990) Priming and
human memory systems. Science 247, 301–306
memory tasks, and within the class of normal and memory impaired patients.
g Schacter, D.L. (1994) Priming and multiple
conceptual implicit memory tasks, have However, the systems that exist to date are memory systems: perceptual mechanisms of
proven problematic for the framework. vague in terms of how conceptual priming implicit memory. In Memory Systems (Schacter,
Such results suggest that finer distinctions is supported (see Ref. g). Additionally, it is D.L. and Tulving, E., eds); pp. 233–268, MIT Press

implicit memory from studies which have used these well-replicated effects, in the form of single
methods. At the outset we note that the ‘process dissociations, have been observed across a range of
dissociation procedure’ does not allow for separate different variables, for example, levels of processing8
estimates of intention and awareness (see Ref. 4 for and retinal size9. Java provides even stronger
discussion). However, we cite evidence obtained using evidence in the form of a crossed double dissociation
this procedure because of its centrality in discussions on implicit and explicit tasks matched on everything
on contamination. Initially, we describe evidence bar test instructions10. In each of these cases we can
indicating that performance reflects unintentional be confident that performance on the implicit
retrieval and then we examine evidence that version of the task predominantly reflected an
performance is both unintentional and unconscious. unintentional retrieval strategy. Recently though,
A separate section on awareness is not included as it is Richardson-Klavehn et al. reported evidence showing
assumed that test unawareness is incompatible with that performance on a word stem completion task was
an intentional retrieval strategy. Whilst intentional entirely the result of an unintentional retrieval
unconscious memory is definitionally possible there is strategy11. This conclusion was supported by a complex
no evidence regarding its actual occurrence4. pattern of results conjointly showing functional, double
and parallel (i.e. same effect of a variable on both
Evidence for implicit memory implicit and explicit versions of the task) dissociations.
Intentionality condition
Conceptual implicit memory. There is a relative paucity
Perceptual implicit memory. Numerous studies have of evidence regarding dissociations between
shown performance on perceptual implicit memory conceptual implicit and explicit memory tasks, and
tasks to reflect unintentional retrieval. These have what evidence there is tends to be based on the findings
usually taken the form of single dissociations between of single studies. This might be because the systematic
perceptual implicit and explicit memory tasks study of conceptual tasks is relatively recent. However,
differing only in terms of test instructions. For it could indicate that explicit memory tasks share more
example, Mulligan and Hartman found that dividing similar processes in common with conceptual implicit
attention at study had no effect on performance on a than with perceptual implicit memory tasks (see, for
word fragment task, but impaired performance on a example, Ref. 12). In terms of relevant evidence Weldon
matched word fragment cued recall task7. Other and Coyote showed that explicit and conceptual implicit
194 Opinion TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences Vol.5 No.5 May 2001

Box 2. Approaches to contamination

The following are some of the proposals that have attempted to retrospectively, all such methods are subject to criticisms such
address the problem of contamination of implicit memory tasks as inability to recall the true nature of the mental state at test.
by explicit (intentional or conscious) processes.
On-line awareness analysisf
Retrieval intentionality criteriona • Awareness is measured ‘on line’, that is, at the time of testing.
• Proposed to distinguish between unintentional and intentional • Method comprises standard stem-completion and cued-recall
retrieval strategies. tasks, plus an opposition task where participants are
• Requires that implicit and explicit memory tasks be matched on encouraged to complete stems with the first word that comes
all properties, bar test instructions. Consequently, differential to mind but to omit previously studied words. Latter task
effects of experimental manipulations can be attributed to the provides the crucial awareness data because participants are
use of unintentional versus intentional retrieval strategies. required to suppress items associated with awareness.
• Although now a feature of most experimental designs, it • Although promising, its ability to generalize to other implicit
does not address the more intractable issue of memory tasks has yet to be established.
phenomenological awareness.
Process dissociation procedureg
Chance recognitionb • Eschewing standard task-based methodology, the approach
• Requires that the effects of a variable be shown to be greater on endorses the idea that any task (implicit or explicit) can be
an implicit rather than explicit memory task. If this is the case it sensitive to both conscious and unconscious influences.
can be argued that performance on the implicit memory task • The method comprises two test conditions (inclusion and
reflects the use of unconscious information as it would be used exclusion), which place conscious and unconscious processes
on the explicit memory task if it were consciously available. in concert and in opposition, respectively. Simple equations are
• Few studies have met this conservative criterion. then used to derive separate estimates of conscious and
unconscious memory.
Awareness questionnairesc • Although an important development, intense methodological
• Consists of a sequence of questions designed to assess state of and theoretical scrutiny renders its current status unclear.
awareness during testing.
• Easy to administer, but permits only a global assessment of
a Schacter, D.L. et al. (1989) Intention, awareness, and implicit memory: the
awareness. That is, it cannot distinguish between cases where retrieval intentionality criterion. In Implicit Memory: Theoretical Issues
a few test responses are associated with awareness and cases (Lewandowsky, S. et al., eds), pp. 47–65, Erlbaum
where most responses are. b Reingold, E.M. and Merikle, P.M. (1990) On the inter-relatedness of theory
and measurement in the study of unconscious processes. Mind Lang. 5, 9–28
c Bowers, J. and Schacter, D.L. (1990) Implicit memory and test awareness.
Item by item analysisd,e
J. Exp. Psychol. Learn. Mem. Cognit. 16, 404–416
• Allows more fine grained analysis of individual responses. d Java, R.I. (1994) States of awareness following word stem completion.
Participants receive an extra recognition task in which they have Eur. J. Cognit. Psychol. 6, 77–92
to indicate the status (previously studied or not) of each item. e Wippich, W. (1997) Input and output monitoring in implicit and explicit
memory tests. Sprache Kognition 3-4, 192–197
From this, priming effects can be calculated based on items that
f Richardson-Klavehn, A. et al. (1994) Involuntary conscious memory and
participants do and do not show awareness for. the method of opposition. Memory 2, 1–29
• As with questionnaires, can be used with different implicit g Jacoby, L.L. (1991) A process dissociation framework: separating automatic
memory tasks. However, in assessing awareness from intentional uses of memory. J. Mem. Lang. 30, 513–541

tasks differing only in terms of test instructions were that obtained significant priming, but chance
dissociated by a picture-word manipulation13. Similar recognition, on tasks matched on all characteristics
effects have been obtained between matched tasks apart from test instructions18. Some evidence is also
following read/generate14, and perceptual interference provided by studies using the process dissociation
manipulations15. However, some manipulations have procedure (Box 2). Schmitter-Edgecombe showed, for
not produced dissociations where test instructions have example, that although consciously controlled
been matched (e.g. Refs 7,14,16). estimates of memory were impaired by manipulating
divided attention, unconscious estimates remained
Intentionality and awareness conditions invariant19. Other studies have applied the approach
to a number of different variables including depth of
Perceptual implicit memory. The strongest form of processing20 and modality21. Using an on-line
evidence comes from studies where priming on the awareness method (see Box 2), Richardson-Klavehn
implicit task is shown in the absence of explicit et al. demonstrated that priming following a
memory performance, the logic being that if relevant perceptual encoding task reflected unintentional
information was consciously available it would be unconscious memory22. Finally, awareness has been
used on the latter test. A few studies do meet this assessed retrospectively using item by item or
conservative criterion (e.g. Refs 17,18) including one questionnaire measures. In these cases there is some
Opinion TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences Vol.5 No.5 May 2001 195

evidence that priming can be observed even when Whilst they argued that interpretation was difficult,
participants claim to have no awareness of the they concluded that performance on conceptual tasks
study–test relationship10,19,23. typically represents an unintentional, but conscious
use of memory.
Conceptual implicit memory. There is virtually no
evidence that priming on conceptual tasks reflects ‘There is virtually no evidence
unintentional and unconscious memory. To the best of
our knowledge only one study has obtained reliable that priming on conceptual tasks
estimates of unconscious retrieval processes for a reflects unintentional and
conceptual task (category association) using the
process dissociation procedure19. These were found unconscious memory.’
under both full and divided attention conditions.
Other than this, two studies have reported significant Overall, despite occasional exceptions (e.g. Ref. 16),
priming under conditions whereby participants these findings strike us as being incompatible with
report no awareness16,19. those compelling instances of perceptual implicit
memory (e.g. Ref. 18) where performance is
Relaxing the implicit memory definition characterized by a form of memory that is not only
In the preceding sections we have shown that unintentional but also unconscious. We should point
considerably more studies using perceptual, rather out that this issue is not exclusively restricted to
than conceptual, implicit memory tasks have met conceptual tasks. Both Richardson-Klavehn et al.28 and
the intentionality criterion. More importantly, of the Rybash and Osborne29 have produced evidence that
small fraction of studies that have met both participants in their studies were routinely aware of
conditions, as defined by Schacter1, almost all have the study–test relationship. However, whereas there is
used perceptual implicit memory tasks. compelling evidence that perceptual implicit memory
As the reader will probably agree, the lack of strong performance for normal participants can operate in the
evidence for implicit memory in normal participants is absence of accompanying awareness, the same cannot
surprising. Given the difficulty of meeting the second be said for conceptual implicit memory tasks.
criterion this apparent lack of methodological rigour
is to some degree understandable. Nevertheless, it is Confusion between unintentional conscious and
certainly the case that the majority of studies make no unconscious memory
attempt to assess ‘conscious recollection’ when Extrapolating from these studies, it seems likely that
purporting to demonstrate implicit memory. a large percentage of purported demonstrations of
Furthermore, some studies make no reference to this implicit memory, especially ones using conceptual
second condition at all, particularly, it seems to us, tasks, really reflect unintentional conscious memory.
those measuring conceptual implicit memory14,24. So why is this a problem?
Thus although the term implicit memory still enjoys Firstly, if participants become aware during test
widespread usage, we ask whether it is acceptable then they may switch to an intentional (and
that the originally proposed conditions for conscious) retrieval strategy. Secondly, it makes
demonstrating implicit memory have been relaxed comparisons between perceptual and conceptual
and in some cases ignored altogether? implicit memory difficult because the latter appears
to be more routinely accompanied by awareness than
Awareness on implicit memory tasks the former. However, the most fundamental problem
We suggest that such a relaxation is not acceptable. is that the majority of studies purporting to
The reason for this is that when some measure of the demonstrate ‘implicit memory’ might not be
second criterion is included in implicit memory measuring what they claim to be. The need to
studies, performance often seems to reflect an distinguish between unintentional unconscious and
unintentional but conscious use of memory. This unintentional conscious memory has been noted by a
appears to be particularly evident when the implicit number of researchers (e.g. Richardson-Klavehn
memory task under consideration is a conceptual one. et al.4), including Schacter1 who explicitly warned
For example, Mulligan and Hartman found that against confusing the two. Why then do researchers
93% participants claimed to be aware of what was persist in describing obtained effects as ‘implicit
being tested on a category production task7. Also, memory’ whereas in all probability many are nothing
Thapar and Greene produced evidence showing, not of the kind (i.e. they are consciously mediated)?
only that all their participants were test aware on a
general knowledge task, but also that participants Are we being too harsh?
‘became’ aware very early on in the test25 (see also Some will of course claim that we are being harsh
Ref. 26). Furthermore, applying the process when questioning evidence for implicit memory
dissociation procedure to a category-production task obtained using normal populations. One can refer to
Mecklenbräuker et al. showed that performance numerous examples of both perceptual and
almost entirely reflected a conscious use of memory27. conceptual implicit memory in a variety of patient
196 Opinion TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences Vol.5 No.5 May 2001

groups (see Ref. 30 for a review), whereby of a retrospective questionnaire. A better approach
contamination by explicit memory processes is might be to incorporate the method of ‘on-line’
unlikely. These do provide compelling evidence for the awareness testing devised by Richardson-Klavehn
existence of both forms of implicit memory. However, and colleagues22. It could, for example, be used with a
there are well-documented measurement and conceptual task such as category exemplar production.
interpretative problems with these forms of evidence Finally, Beauregard et al. have developed an approach
(see, for example, Ref. 31) and they may not have any based on the logic of demonstrating priming under
bearing on how normal participants will behave on conditions where recognition is at chance33. Although
implicit memory tasks. We believe that the lack of this approach precludes manipulating variables at
genuine evidence regarding implicit memory in the time of study (e.g. levels of processing) we believe
normal participants is a real concern. Thus, as we it could be fruitfully applied to a variety of implicit
enter the third decade of research into the memory tasks.
phenomenon, we wonder whether the term ‘implicit Should more convincing evidence not be
memory’ has in fact outlived its usefulness. forthcoming, then we believe the only other viable
option would be to drop the term ‘implicit memory’.
Options for the future Recently, Gabrieli et al. have reframed the
At this point we believe that there are two main explicit/implicit distinction in terms of ‘conscious
options available. If the term ‘implicit memory’is to be remembrance’ and occurring ‘incidentally’,
retained then it is imperative that more compelling respectively24. This represents an attempt to distance
demonstrations are produced using both perceptual the term ‘implicit’ from ‘unconscious recollection’.
and conceptual tasks. Roediger and McDermott outline However, we believe that such a step is confusing
a number of precautions designed to reduce the because the term ‘implicit’ has become so finely
likelihood of participants becoming test aware32. We ingrained with the concept of unconsciousness.
suggest that researchers, particularly those using As an alternative, we suggest that it might be
conceptual tasks, incorporate such features, for appropriate to adopt the terminology used by
example, high ratios of filler to target test items, into Richardson-Klavehn et al., who differentiate
their designs (but see Ref. 4 for a different perspective). between implicit and explicit memory tasks in terms
of retrieval instructions11. Thus, they describe a
‘…we wonder whether the term word-stem completion task as an incidental
(i.e. unintentional) perceptual memory task and cued
implicit memory has in fact recall as an intentional task. Again, this represents a
outlived its usefulness.’ shift away from the troublesome issue of
consciousness. Although, in our opinion, it is precisely
In meeting the second criterion for implicitness we the idea that memory can proceed without awareness
believe that some indicator of test awareness should that makes implicit memory such an exciting field of
be routinely included in future studies (see also scientific inquiry, dropping the term might prove to be
Ref. 19). At the very least, this should take the form the only realistic way forward.

References (Lewandowsky, S. et al., eds), pp. 47–65, Erlbaum 14 Vaidya, C.J. et al. (1997) Evidence for multiple
1 Schacter, D.L. (1987) Implicit memory: history 7 Mulligan, N.W. and Hartman, M. (1996) Divided mechanisms of conceptual priming on implicit
and current status. J. Exp. Psychol. Learn. Mem. attention and indirect memory tests. Mem. memory tests. J. Exp. Psychol. Learn. Mem.
Cognit. 13, 501–518 Cognit. 24, 453–465 Cognit. 23, 1324–1343
2 Graf, P. and Schacter, D.L. (1985) Implicit and 8 Roediger, H.L. et al. (1992) Direct comparison of 15 Mulligan, N.W. (1996) The effects of perceptual
explicit memory for new associations in normal two implicit memory tests: word fragment and interference at encoding on implicit memory,
and amnesic subjects. J. Exp. Psychol. Learn. word stem completion. J. Exp. Psychol. Learn. explicit memory, and memory for source. J. Exp.
Mem. Cognit. 11, 501–518 Mem. Cognit. 18, 1251–1269 Psychol. Learn. Mem. Cognit. 22, 1067–1087
3 Roediger, H.L. et al. (1989) Explaining 9 Seamon, J.G. et al. (1997) A mere exposure effect 16 Mulligan, N.W. et al. (1999) The effects of levels
dissociations between implicit and explicit for transformed three-dimensional objects: effects of processing and organization on conceptual
measures of retention: a processing account. In of reflection, size, or color changes on affect and implicit memory in the category exemplar
Varieties of Memory and Consciousness: Essays in recognition. Mem. Cognit. 25, 367–374 production test. Mem. Cognit. 27, 633–647
Honour of Endel Tulving (Roediger, H.L. and 10 Java, R.I. (1994) States of awareness following 17 Kunst-Wilson, W.R. and Zajonc, R.B. (1980)
Craik, F.I.M, eds), pp. 3–41, Erlbaum word stem completion. Eur. J. Cognit. Psychol. Affective discrimination of stimuli that cannot
4 Richardson-Klavehn, A. et al. (1996) Memory: 6, 77–92 be recognized. Science 207, 557–558
task dissociations, process dissociations and 11 Richardson-Klavehn, A. et al. (1999) Conjoint 18 Seamon, J.G. et al. (1998) The mere exposure
dissociations of consciousness. In Implicit dissociations reveal involuntary ‘perceptual’ effect is differentially sensitive to different
Cognition (Underwood, G., ed.), pp. 85–158, priming from generating at study. Conscious. judgment tasks. Conscious. Cognit. 17, 85–105
Oxford University Press Cognit. 8, 271–284 19 Schmitter-Edgecombe, M. (1999) Effects of
5 Jacoby, L.L. (1991) A process dissociation 12 Mulligan, N.W. (1997) Attention and implicit divided attention on perceptual and conceptual
framework: separating automatic from memory: the effects of varying attentional load memory tests: an analysis using a process-
intentional uses of memory. J. Mem. Lang. on conceptual priming. Mem. Cognit. 25, 11–17 dissociation approach. Mem. Cognit. 27, 512–525
30, 513–541 13 Weldon, M.S. and Coyote, K.C. (1996) Failure to 20 Toth, J.P. et al. (1994) Towards a redefinition of
6 Schacter, D.L. et al. (1989) Intention, awareness, find the picture superiority effect in implicit implicit memory: process dissociations following
and implicit memory: the retrieval intentionality conceptual memory tests. J. Exp. Psychol Learn. elaborative processing and self-generation.
criterion. In Implicit Memory: Theoretical Issues Mem. Cognit. 22, 670–686 J. Exp. Psychol. Learn. Mem. Cognit. 20, 290–303
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21 Jacoby, L.L. et al. (1993) Separating conscious and levels of processing on implicit and explicit tasks. 30 Gabrieli, J.D.E. (1998) Cognitive neuroscience of
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which we expect to see her. Although in strict

Surface perception geometrical terms any retinal image of granny is

ambiguous, because it is a 2-D projection of a 3-D
scene and therefore loses the spatial component

and the generic view along the line of sight, we seem to recognize her
effortlessly, without consciously considering any
alternative percepts.

principle Prior probabilities and Bayesian theories of perception

This suggests that the richness of our visual
experience depends upon the exploitation of
Marc K. Albert regularities of the environment to constrain image
interpretation. On this view, our prior beliefs about
our chances of encountering certain 3-D objects
The hypothesis that perceptual experience can be understood in terms of (and/or viewing them from certain vantage points)
rule-based processing has strongly influenced recent theories of visual surface are represented by biased prior probability
perception. However, many of the rules that these theories propose apply only distributions. Thus, we would give a relatively high
in relatively restricted situations. I suggest that more general and robust prior probability to our chances of encountering
principles for reducing perceptual ambiguity are available, such as the generic granny relative to any other object that could be
view principle (GVP) described here. According to the GVP, vision assumes that confused with her. This kind of emphasis on prior
qualitative (e.g. topological) image structure is stable with respect to small probabilities has been advocated by many
changes of viewpoint. Some consequences of the GVP for visual surfaces, investigators who favor a Bayesian analysis of
including illusory surfaces, are described. I also demonstrate the decisive role visual perception4.
of real and illusory background surfaces in specifying the 3-D shape and layout However, visual priors that are not based on
of visual objects and scenes. reliable regularities of the environment in which an
organism evolved must be learned by each organism
Surfaces are the building blocks of our visual from scratch through experience. Add to this the fact
experience1,2. Although images of visual surfaces that many priors are highly context-dependent, and
frequently do not contain depth cues in their we see that the Bayesian view entails that prior
interiors, such as perceptible texture or shading, probabilities are likely to include large amounts of
they are often perceived relatively unambiguously data that must be learned over an extended period
in 3-D (Ref. 3). What resolves the depth ambiguity of time before an organism would attain a reasonable
in sparse monocular images such as the silhouettes level of competence. For these reasons, among
in Fig. 1? As any given image is consistent with many others, it has been suggested that the use of detailed
possible 3-D interpretations, why is perception not priors (implicitly or explicitly) in a Bayesian analysis
equally ambiguous? is not a feasible strategy for a biological visual
One response to these questions is that the world system with limited resources that must get ‘up and
is not a random place, and our experiences are not running’ quickly, and consequently, that this strategy
Marc K. Albert
Dept of Psychology,
random sequences of events. They have a significant is not a sufficient theoretical basis for understanding
University of degree of ‘regularity’ to them. Certain visual images human visual surface perception .
Southampton, Highfield, are seemingly clear and unambiguous signs of the I argue instead for the central role played by more
presence of certain familiar objects in the world. For general principles of vision, specifically the ‘generic
UK SO17 1BJ.
e-mail: M.K.Albert@ example, we can easily identify our grandmother in view principle’ (GVP). This principle states that a crowd of people, particularly in situations in visual images are likely to be qualitatively stable with 1364-6613/01/$ – see front matter © 2001 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved. PII: S1364-6613(00)01643-0