Seeing Is Better Than Hearing When It Comes To Retaining Memories

Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online

Having a hard time remembering someone’s name or a phone number? It turns out that seeing is better than hearing when it comes to memory.

According to a new study from the University of Iowa published in the journal PLOS ONE, people are more apt to remember something they see or touch compared to something they hear.

“As it turns out, there is merit to the Chinese proverb ‘I hear, and I forget; I see, and I remember,” said study author James Bigelow, a graduate student at UI.

“We tend to think that the parts of our brain wired for memory are integrated,” said co-author Amy Poremba, associate professor of psychology at the university. “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 the new study, over 100 UI undergraduate students were given various sounds, visuals and objects to feel. The team found that volunteers were least likely to recollect the sounds they had heard than the other stimuli.

In an initial experiment evaluating short term memory, volunteers were told to pay attention to tones they heard through headphones, examine various shades of red squares, and feel subtle vibrations by gripping an aluminum bar. Each set of stimuli was separated by delays ranging from one to 32 seconds.

Although students’ memory diminished when time delays were longer, the memory decrease was much greater for sounds, and started around four to eight seconds after being exposed to them.

Poremba compared that relatively quick time span to forgetting a phone number that you just heard.

“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 said.

In a second trial, the researchers looked at participants’ memory by using things they might come across on a daily basis. Participants heard audio recordings of dogs barking, watched muted videos of a basketball game, and held typical objects they were not allowed to see. The scientists discovered that between an hour and a week later, volunteers were worse at recalling the sounds they had heard, but their memory for visual and tactile objects was about the same.

Both trials show that the way the mind processes and stores sound may be unlike the way it analyzes and stores other kinds of memories, the study team said.

“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,” Poremba said.

The study team noted that tests with non-human primates have shown that they also excel at visual and tactile memory tasks while having a problem with auditory tasks. This led the researchers to theorize that humans’ weakness for remembering sounds probably has its origins in the primate brain.