Short term memory's effectiveness influenced by sight, sound

For decades scientists have believed that people can only remember an ordered list of about seven items at a time--such as seven grocery items or seven digits of a phone number--but new research from the University of Rochester has shown that this magic number varies depending on whether the language used is spoken or signed. The results in the cover story of the latest issue of Nature Neuroscience have important implications for standardized tests, which often employ ordered-list retention as a measure of a person's mental aptitude.

"When we hear things, we naturally process them in a series," says Daphne Bavelier, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester. "When we hear music, for instance, it comes to us second by second, so the part of our brains that processes auditory information has evolved to absorb information in sequence. This means hearing a spoken list, such as numbers in an ATM code, corresponds more closely with what the auditory brain does naturally." Conversely, visual information comes to us simultaneously as we might see a sunset, clouds and a skyline all at the same time. While the visual processes in the brain can still remember ordered lists, they tend to be less effective at it, recalling an average of five numbers instead of seven.

In the 1960s, cognitive scientists showed that for nearly all speakers of all languages, list retention peaked at around seven items, plus or minus about two. As more languages were tested, a few exceptions were found, such as Chinese, that allows to hold nine items or Welsh that is nearer to five, but in all cases these variations were entirely predictable by the length of time it takes to utter the words in each language. The Chinese numbers used in the test happen to be very short and simple to pronounce, whereas Welsh ones are quite complex and take longer. In this context, deaf users of American Sign Language who had been known to recall only about fi

Contact: Jonathan Sherwood
University of Rochester

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