By definition, memory is about an experience that has occurred in the past.  The study of memory, therefore, must always be framed in the context of the question, “How far in the past?”

With television commercials, relevant time frames vary from a few minutes after exposure, to day after recall, to the remembrance of advertising that can be retrieved by tracking studies weeks or months after exposure to an ad.

However, with some kinds of advertising—digital, print, outdoor—these time frames may be too long. In these cases, memories may be formed in working memory in a few seconds.

The psychologist, Paul Fraise, gave a nice description of how we process information in the moment:

“As soon as we fix our attention, organization comes into evidence, individual objects are distinguished, successive structures are isolated and become figures against a ground which remains indistinct. This organization implies unification, the demarcation of a group of stimuli which make one whole, according to…the law of continuity for time.”

Notably, Fraise related this process to the concept of the psychological “present”:

“The psychological present has often been compared with the fluctuations of attention….It seems that after comparatively continuous perception, there is a break and then a new present begins.”

This appears to be a process akin to the attentional blink that produces peaks in short term memories every few seconds when we watch television. When the eye scans a print ad or a web page, memory is suppressed during the “saccade”—the eye movement—and the mind only records memory at the points of fixation.

Studying perception and memory formation after very brief time exposures has a long history in psychology.  Tachistscopes, for example, are an old laboratory tool for tightly controlling the timing of many respondent memory tasks. This testing approach can easily be executed online because every computer has a very accurate clock built into the processor.

When we test a digital ad, a print ad or a package on-line, we typically use timed exposures of ½ seconds, 1 second, and 4 seconds to measure what elements of an ad are being recorded in working memory.

The results of such a test can be mapped out like eye-tracking. However, it differs from eye-tracking in that, instead of simply measuring where the eyeball is pointing, it measures the path of the mind through an ad. By asking respondents to report what they think they saw after these very short exposures to an ad, researchers can measure communication and memory formation very close to the moment of perception.