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Research within visual cognition has made tremendous strides in uncovering the basic operating characteristics of the visual system by reducing the complexity of natural vision to artificial but well-controlled experimental tasks and stimuli. This reductionist approach has for example been used to assess the basic limitations of visual attention, visual working memory (VWM) capacity, and the fidelity of visual long-term memory (VLTM). The assessment of these limits is usually made in a pure sense, irrespective of goals, actions, and priors. While it is important to map out the bottlenecks our visual system faces, we focus here on selected examples of how such limitations can be overcome. Recent findings suggest that during more natural tasks, capacity may be higher than reductionist research suggests and that separable systems subserve different actions, such as reaching and looking, which might provide important insights about how pure attentional or memory limitations could be circumvented. We also review evidence suggesting that the closer we get to naturalistic behavior, the more we encounter implicit learning mechanisms that operate "for free" and "on the fly." These mechanisms provide a surprisingly rich visual experience, which can support capacity-limited systems. We speculate whether natural tasks may yield different estimates of the limitations of VWM, VLTM, and attention, and propose that capacity measurements should also pass the real-world test within naturalistic frameworks. Our review highlights various approaches for this and suggests that our understanding of visual cognition will benefit from incorporating the complexities of real-world cognition in experimental approaches.

Original publication




Journal article


Atten Percept Psychophys

Publication Date



Virtual reality, Visual attention, Visual long-term memory, Visual working memory