Which Sensation Is Best for Memories?

In a battle of the senses, hearing loses.
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In a battle of the senses, hearing loses.
(Photo: BortN66/Shutterstock)

(Photo: BortN66/Shutterstock)

Take a moment to look at this picture, listen to this sound, and then close your eyes and grab whatever object is closest to you.

Now, a test: If someone unexpectedly asked you about these things a week from now, would you remember all three?

Don't be too hard on yourself if you think you would forget the duck quack. Between sights, sounds, and tactile sensations, what we hear is hardest for us to recall, according to researchers at the University of Iowa. They pitted our senses against each other in a recent study to determine which works best with memory, and found that while seeing and feeling are about equal, hearing just can't compete.

"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."

The study consisted of two experiments that focused on short-term memory. Participants were exposed to different pictures, sounds, and objects to touch (shielded from view), and then asked to distinguish each thing from a similar item or identify it among a larger group. Sometimes participants' memories were tested after only a matter of seconds, but in other instances the study stretched the time before recall to a day or even a week. While the accuracy of the participants' memories declined across the board as time went on, the accuracy of their auditory recall plummeted more rapidly than that of the the other two senses.

Science has tossed around the notion that auditory memory may be worse than visual memory for a long time, the researchers note. But their study is the first to show that our ability to remember what we touch is roughly on par with our ability to remember what we see—which should surprise anyone who assumes sight is the most reliable sense. And the discrepancy between sound-based and other types of memories, they say, adds evidence to the increasingly popular belief that the brain's process of storing memories is even more complicated than we ever thought.

"We tend to think that the parts of our brain wired for memory are integrated," says Amy Poremba, one of the study's two authors, in a press release. "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."

The researchers, of course, are careful to point out that their results do not prove auditory memory is worse in all instances. Immediate recall, such as when someone gives you their number and you instantly tap it into your phone, works best with hearing, for example.

Even so, next time you explore a new part of town, you should probably look at a map before you go asking for directions.

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