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Michael Cohen, Todd Horowitz, Jeremy Wolfe; Auditory recognition memory is inferior to visual recognition memory. Journal of Vision 2009;9(8):568. doi: 10.1167/9.8.568.
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© ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)
For several decades we have known that visual memory for scenes is surprisingly robust. In the most dramatic demonstration, Standing showed observers up to 10,000 images for a few seconds each, and reported that they could subsequently identify which images they had seen before with 83% accuracy. We wished to examine whether an analogous ability exists in the auditory domain. In every experiment, participants listened to a variety of sound clips during a study phase. During the testing phase, participants listened to another set of clips and had to indicate whether each clip was old or new. In Experiments 1–3, stimuli ranged from complex auditory scenes (talking in a pool hall) to isolated auditory objects (a dog barking) to music. In some conditions, the sound clips were paired with pictures or their verbal descriptions during the study phase to help with encoding. Participants were then tested for recognition of the sound clips alone. We also measured memory for the verbal descriptions alone and the matching pictures alone using the same experimental paradigm. In every situation, auditory memory proved to be systematically inferior to visual memory. Two explanations suggest themselves. Auditory objects might be fundamentally different from visual objects. In their physics or psychophysics, they may actually be less memorable than their visual counterparts. Alternatively, auditory memory might be fundamentally different/smaller than visual memory. We might simply lack the capacity to remember more than a few auditory objects, however memorable, when they are presented one after another in rapid succession. In either case, it is unlikely that anyone will find 1,000 sounds that can be remembered with anything like the accuracy of their visual counterparts.
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