Humans have a poor memory for sound

Remember that sound bite you heard on the radio this morning? The grocery items your spouse asked you to pick up? Chances are, you won't.

Researchers at the University of Iowa have found that when it comes to memory, we don't remember things we hear nearly as well as things we see or touch.

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

"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 differently than visual and tactile information, and alternative strategies – such as increased mental repetition – may be needed when trying to improve memory," says Amy Poremba, associate professor in the UI Department of Psychology and corresponding author on the paper, published this week in the journal PLOS ONE.

Bigelow and Poremba discovered that when more than 100 UI undergraduate students were exposed to a variety of sounds, visuals and things that could be felt, the students were least apt to remember the sounds they had heard.

In an experiment testing short term-memory, 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.

Although students' memory declined across the board when time delays grew longer, the decline was much greater for sounds, and began as early as four to eight seconds after being exposed to them.

While this seems like a short time span, it's akin to forgetting a phone number that wasn't written down, notes Poremba. "If someone gives you a number, and you dial it right away, you are usually fine. But do anything in between, and the odds are you will have forgotten it," she says.

In a second experiment, Bigelow and Poremba 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, but their memory for visual scenes and tactile objects was about the same.

Both experiments suggest that the way your mind processes and stores sound may be different from the way it process and stores other types of memories. And that could have big implications for educators, design engineers and advertisers alike.

"As teachers, we want to assume students will remember everything we say. But if you really want something to be memorable you may need to include a visual or hands-on experience, in addition to auditory information," says Poremba.

Previous research has suggested that humans may have superior visual memory, and that hearing words associated with sounds – rather than hearing the sounds alone – may aid memory. Bigelow and Poremba's study builds upon those findings by confirming that, indeed, we remember less of what we hear, regardless of whether sounds are linked to words.

The study also is the first to show that our ability to remember what we touch is roughly equal to our ability to remember what we see. The finding is important, because experiments with non-human primates such as monkeys and chimpanzees have shown that they similarly excel at visual and tactile tasks, but struggle with auditory tasks. Based on these observations, the authors believe humans' weakness for remembering sounds likely has its roots in the evolution of the primate brain.

More information: PLOS ONE DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0089914

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verkle
5 / 5 (2) Feb 26, 2014
There is great variation among humans. Some can listen to a song and remember nearly every note played, while others are nearly tone deaf.

Whenver I leave a store or facility where music was being played, often that song continues to be played in my mind for the next couple hours.

TegiriNenashi
1 / 5 (3) Feb 26, 2014
I bet they tested it on "non-audiophile grade" equipment (so the results are questionable). It is well known that after you power conditioned all the cables, human hearing can easily rival that of dolphins.
Captain Stumpy
not rated yet Feb 27, 2014
There is great variation among humans. Some can listen to a song and remember nearly every note played, while others are nearly tone deaf.
Whenver I leave a store or facility where music was being played, often that song continues to be played in my mind for the next couple hours.

I was wondering this myself
How many musicians were in the group tested?
how many blind?
in fact... how many musically inclined period, really...
I have a tendency to remember music very well... I cant remember names very well, but I remember music VERY well
ODesign
5 / 5 (1) Feb 27, 2014
When I read the actual abstract linked to (good reporting to include the full source :) it cleared up a lot of possible other interpretations. I can agree with the conclusion that it is a significant result with implications for the real world that demands further study.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Feb 27, 2014
I have a tendency to remember music very well

All people do. The reason is that the structure of the overwhelming amount of music you are exposed to is very simply (much repetition, basic structure that is already well known beforehand, ...). So there isn't much to remember in any case. This is also why we find music pleasant, BTW. Listening to it doesn't tax our brains and is therefore considered relaxing.

Try that with some very complex piece of music (e.g. a piece of free jazz) and you will quickly fail to remember specific sequences - much less the entire piece.

This is why remembering phone numbers is hard by comparison because there are no predictable sequences (apart from the area code). The human mind is good at compressing information. When there's no way to compress it we have a hard time handling it.
Captain Stumpy
not rated yet Feb 27, 2014
Try that with some very complex piece of music (e.g. a piece of free jazz) and you will quickly fail to remember specific sequences

@antialias_physorg
I believe this to be true for many, but I also think musicians are a bit different:
I play some classical instruments... and complex classical music actually stimulates me rather than relaxes, mostly due to my having played them in the past. New music stimulates me to figure out how to play it.
that is one reason why I wonder how musicians did as opposed to the average person. they listen to music very differently. When I hear music, sometimes I see the notes/score, but mostly I visualise it as I played it. (this goes mostly for jazz, classical, certain pop songs, (big)band music, etc)
as for phone numbers... totally right. I gave up long ago! LOL Now i just remember the patterns that they make when I type them in :-)
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Feb 27, 2014
mostly due to my having played them in the past. New music stimulates me to figure out how to play it.

Exactly: you use other means than the auditory clues. You visualize the notes and/or how you'd move your fingers to play the piece. These are much stronger clues to remembering things than merely hearing them.

That's why the experiment should NOT have used musicians. It would have added a biasing effect to the experiment that would have put the results in doubt.
Captain Stumpy
not rated yet Feb 27, 2014
Exactly: you use other means than the auditory clues. You visualize the notes and/or how you'd move your fingers to play the piece. These are much stronger clues to remembering things than merely hearing them.

That's why the experiment should NOT have used musicians. It would have added a biasing effect to the experiment that would have put the results in doubt.

@antialias_physorg
that thought never really occurred to me. Hmm. thanks for pointing that out.

you are right.
russell_russell
not rated yet Mar 01, 2014
"As teachers, we want to assume students will remember everything we say. But if you really want something to be memorable you may need to include a visual or hands-on experience, in addition to auditory information," says Poremba.

And...AP says:

"Exactly: you use other means than the auditory clues. You visualize the notes and/or how you'd move your fingers to play the piece. These are much stronger clues to remembering things than merely hearing them."

"Forgotten" are the hundreds of scores of music I once learned to play...the black on white visuals. Place any of those scores before my eyes...and I can "hear" in my head what I first learned to play at the time without physically playing again.

That doesn't stop at "hearing". If allowed to touch the instrument I learned to play on, the "motor-ric" (finger movement) "returns" as well, without the instrument making a single tone.

cont...

russell_russell
not rated yet Mar 01, 2014
Without fMRI there is no way an outside observer can tell if what I am "listening" to is coming from the headphones I am wearing (on/off?) or from my head on the instrument I am "playing".

Have the researchers underscore their claim with fMRI.

I respectfully disagree with a "weak" memory for sound and/or a "separate process" for each of "passive" cues of vision, touch, and hearing.

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