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“In One Ear and Out the Other”? Study Says Human Have a Poor Memory for Sound

memory for soundDo you remember the sound bite that you heard on the radio this morning? What about the grocery items your wife asked you to pick up? Chances are, you won’t.

A study published in this week’s PLOS ONE found that when it comes to memory, we don’t remember things we hear as well as things we touch or see.

James Bigelow, the lead author of the study and University of Iowa graduate student says: “It turns out that there is merit to a Chinese proverb ‘I hear, and I forget; I see, and I remember.”

 “We are prone to believe that parts of our brain wired for memory are integrated. However, our findings suggest that our brain might use separate pathways to process information. Our study even indicates the brain might process auditory information in a different way than visual and tactile information and alternatives tactics, such as increased mental repetition may be required when trying to enhance memory,” says Amy Poremba, associate professor in the UI Department of Psychology and the corresponding author of the paper.

More than 100 UI undergraduates participated in the study. Bigelow and Poremba discovered that when the students were exposed to varies sounds, visuals and things that can be felt, they were least apt to remember the sounds they had heard.

In a short-term memory testing experiment, the participants were requested to listen to pure tones through headphones, look at a variety of shades or red squares, and feel low-intensity vibrations by holding an aluminum bar. Each set of tones, squares and vibrations was separated by time delays that range from one to 32 seconds.

As the time delays grew longer, the students’ memory declined across the board, but the declining trend was much greater for sounds and it started as early as four to eight seconds after being exposed to them.

However, Poremba notes that this seems to be due to a short time span, it’s like forgetting a new phone number that was not written down. She says: “If someone gives you a number, and you dial it immediately, you are find. But if you do something in between, chances are you will have forgotten it.”

In the second experiment, Bigelow and Poremba studied the students’ memory using things they may encounter or use on an everyday basis. The participants listened to audio recordings of dogs barking, touched and held common objects block from view like a coffee mug, and watched silent videos of a basketball game. It was found that between an hour and a week later, the students were worse at remembering the sounds they heard, however, their memory for tactile objects and visual scenes was about the same.

Both of the two experiments indicate that the way our mind processes and stores sound information might be different from that it treat other types of memories. And these findings could have huge implications for educators, advertisers and design engineers.

Poremba suggests: “As teachers, we want our students to be able to remember everything we teach. But according to our findings, if you really want something to be memorable, you might need to include a visual or hands-on experiences in addition to solely auditory information.”

Previous research has found that humans may have superior memory for visual information, and that hearing words with sounds – rather than only hearing the sounds – might help memory. Bigelow and Porema’s research build on those findings by confirming that, indeed, we do remember less of what we hear, no matter whether sounds are connected to words or not.

The study, in the same time, is the first to demonstrate that our capability to remember what we touch is roughly equal to our capability to remember what we see. The finding is of great importance since experiments with non-human primates, for example, monkeys and chimpanzees, have shown that they excel similarly at visual and tactile memory tasks, but struggle with auditory memory tasks. Based on these observations, the authors believe humans’ weakness of memory for sounds possibly roots in the evolution of the primate brain.

Source: EurekaAlert

Image source: shutterstock


  1. Bigelow J, Poremba A (2014) Achilles’ Ear? Inferior Human Short-Term and Recognition Memory in the Auditory Modality. PLoS ONE 9(2): e89914. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0089914