Harvard Medicine

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Our memory of sights trumps those of sounds, with the blurriest pictures less forgettable than the most clarion sounds.

Photo by Eric Isselée<br/>iStockphoto.com A yipping dog, a whistling teakettle, a thunderclap. You would think it would be easy to recall hearing such sounds 15 minutes later—but it’s not.

“People simply aren’t good at remembering sounds,” says Todd Horowitz, an HMS assistant professor of ophthalmology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Horowitz and his colleague, Jeremy Wolfe, an HMS professor of ophthalmology, recently reported on the inferiority of auditory recognition relative to visual recognition.

For several decades, they and other researchers have documented how people remember visual scenes amazingly well, routinely scoring 90 percent or higher when asked to identify previously seen images in a rapid succession of thousands of pictures. But the same is not true with sound. In one of the first studies of its kind, people had difficulty remembering which sounds they had recently heard, whether spoken words, music, or complex auditory scenarios, such as pool-hall conversations. “The most memorable sounds we could find,” Wolfe says, “were equivalent to the lousiest pictures.”

The consistently lower memory for sounds led researchers to conclude that the brain processes sights and sounds in fundamentally different ways. The team is following up with a study of trained musicians.

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