Relationships between expertise and distinctiveness: Abnormal medical images lead to enhanced memory performance only in experts. Mem Cognit 2021;49(6):1067-1081.Abstract.
Memories are encoded in a manner that depends on our knowledge and expectations ("schemas"). Consistent with this, expertise tends to improve memory: Experts have elaborated schemas in their domains of expertise, allowing them to efficiently represent information in this domain (e.g., chess experts have enhanced memory for realistic chess layouts). On the other hand, in most situations, people tend to remember abnormal or surprising items best-those that are also rare or out-of-the-ordinary occurrences (e.g., surprising-but not random-chess board configurations). This occurs, in part, because such images are distinctive relative to other images. In the current work, we ask how these factors interact in a particularly interesting case-the domain of radiology, where experts actively search for abnormalities. Abnormality in mammograms is typically focal but can be perceived in the global "gist" of the image. We ask whether, relative to novices, expert radiologists show improved memory for mammograms. We also test for any additional advantage for abnormal mammograms that can be thought of as unexpected or rare stimuli in screening. We find that experts have enhanced memory for focally abnormal images relative to normal images. However, radiologists showed no memory benefit for images of the breast that were not focally abnormal, but were only abnormal in their gist. Our results speak to the role of schemas and abnormality in expertise; the necessity for spatially localized abnormalities versus abnormalities in the gist in enhancing memory; and the nature of memory and decision-making in radiologists.