Remember that sound bite you heard on the radio this
morning? The grocery items your spouse asked you to pick up? Chances are, you
"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
auditory information 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
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
memory 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.
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