by Adam Plumer

Imagine you’re walking down a street and you see a dog in a sweater. Then, minutes later, you see an almost identical dog wearing a similar sweater. You might be more inclined to think about dogs, sweaters, dogs in sweaters, or some combination. This idea is called retro-cueing, which in the field of cognitive psychology means you’re more likely to think back about something that happened based on what you just saw. So in this case, you’re more likely to think about the first dog, and thus dogs in general, after you see the second dog.

But what about everything else you were looking at? Does the name of the new bagel shop you passed get erased from your memory? It all depends on how much you attended to it, and if you maybe see another sign for the same shop down the road.

Visual short term memory (VSTM) is where all visual memory is first stored in the brain. Information is maintained for easy access later on. For instance, you may take a different route driving home because your VSTM detected and maintained the sign that said “Road Closed Ahead”. You only remember this because you decided at some point in processing that this information was important, and thus kept it at the forefront of your memory. For years, researchers have theorized that VSTM is a static structure, and that you store information when you need it, and it is maintained.

Retro-cueing refreshes memory

Retro-cueing refreshes memory

This is where retro-cueing comes into play. When driving home, a lot of people, myself included, will go on autopilot and often take the original route anyway, even if it’s closed, simply because that’s what they’re used to. But if there’s a second sign saying “Road Closed”, we might think twice about doing that. This is because we have been retro-cued to think about the original sign. But what happens to everything else we were thinking about? We may forget that the speed limit just went down to 55 or that there’s a car about to pass on the left. This goes against the idea that VSTM is static, because some elements may be pushed out easily.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers at VU University Amsterdam have come up with a theory suggesting that VSTM is not static, and that these memories may not be lost, but simply unattended. They conducted experiments testing the effects of retro-cueing, and whether memory that wasn’t cued was lost or simply unavailable.

They concluded that memory can be recovered if it’s cued for a second time, suggesting that the memory that is not cued for is still present, it’s just not directly accessible. This suggests that VSTM is multilayered, where memory can exist in different states based on how we are exposed to them. In effect, we have a lot more information stored in VSTM that we may not be aware of until it comes back to the forefront of our memory.

We may think nothing of trees passing by us, but still recognize that we passed them. We may even dwell on the license plate in front of us that reads “2COOL4U”. But ultimately it’s the “Road Closed” sign that stays most prominent because that’s what we’re fixated on.

In the picture below, a presentation is in Slide Sorter view in PowerPoint. If you imagine that the red slides are your central points for the presentation, arrange them so that they come up periodically, and cue your listeners to that point. Doing so will ensure that they take away the correct message and stay focused throughout the presentation.

Re-cue main messages

Re-cue main messages

When crafting a presentation, using retro-cueing is an excellent tool to reinforce a point or maintain your audience’s attention. Every once in a while you could add in a second, third, fourth cue to get back to your central point. This secures memory for the most critical message even when audiences may be distracted.



Van Moorselaar, D., Olivers, C. N. L., Theeuwes, J., Lamme, V. A. F., & Sligte, I. G. (2015). Forgotten But Not Gone: Retro-Cue Costs and Benefits in a Double-Cueing Paradigm Suggest Multiple States in Visual Short-Term Memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Learning, Memory, and Cognition. doi:10.1037/xlm0000124

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