Study Finds Humans Have a Poor Memory For Sounds

Posted on February 28, 2014

Researchers at the University of Iowa (UI) have found that people are not very good at remembering sounds. The researchers conducted a series of memory tests on UI undergraduate students and found that we don't remember things we hear nearly as well as things we see or touch.

James Bigelow, the lead author of the study and UI graduate student, says in a statement, "As it turns out, there is merit to the Chinese proverb 'I hear, and I forget; I see, and I remember.'

Amy Poremba, associate professor in the UI Department of Psychology and study co-author, says, "We tend to think that the parts of our brain wired for memory are integrated. But our findings indicate our brain may use separate pathways to process information. Even more, our study suggests the brain may process auditory information differently than visual and tactile information, and alternative strategies - such as increased mental repetition - may be needed when trying to improve memory."

In one experiment UI student participants were asked to listen to pure tones they heard through headphones, look at various shades of red squares, and feel low-intensity vibrations by gripping an aluminum bar. Each set of tones, squares and vibrations was separated by time delays ranging from one to 32 seconds. The researchers found the students' memory declined when time delays grew longer, which was expected. However, the researchers found this decline was much greater for sounds, and began as early as four to eight seconds after being exposed to them.

In the second experiment, researchers tested participants' memory using things they might encounter on an everyday basis. Students listened to audio recordings of dogs barking, watched silent videos of a basketball game, and, touched and held common objects blocked from view, such as a coffee mug. The researchers found that between an hour and a week later, students were worse at remembering the sounds they had heard, while their memory for visual scenes and tactile objects was about the same.

The researchers note that past experiments have found that monkeys and chimpanzees also struggle with auditory memory tasks while excelling at visual and tactile memory tests. The authors say this suggests humans' weak sound memory has its roots in the evolution of the primate brain.

The research paper, "Achilles' Ear? Inferior Human Short-Term and Recognition Memory in the Auditory Modality," published here in the journal, PLoS One, contains greater detail about the two experiments the researchers conducted.