Auditory Memory is More Important than you Think. Here’s why.

auditory memory cover image

If the human mind is a sponge and the information around it is water, then the senses are the pores on the sponge. And just like a sponge soaks water from all the pores, our brain too takes information from all sensory inputs. Auditory memory is one such way of registering and storing memory via acoustic stimulus. Auditory memory is a major component of our learning process. A major part of our language abilities developed due to auditory memory.

In a study done by Rowe et al., done in 2003, showed that children with poor auditory memory skills struggled to recognize sounds and match them to letters. The phonetics weren’t recognized well and resulted in difficulty in understanding words. This shows how important echoic (auditory) memory is.

This article will dive into the details of auditory memory, how it works, and the major parts of the brain that are responsible. It’ll also discuss some studies done by researchers to see how different auditory memory is from visual memory. How to detect if children have echoic memory impairment and what to do to improve it. We have also added an auditory memory test and methods to improve it along with the definition of auditory memory index. 

What is auditory memory?

The oversimplification of the word memory has made many people think that like eyes have sight, ears can hear, and tongues have taste, the brain has memory. This is an oversimplification. Memory is very complicated and there are many types of memory, based majorly on the type of sensory pathway the information comes from. 

Memory is defined as “knowledge is encoded, stored, and later retrieved” (Kandell, Schwartz, and Jessell, 2000). The brain needs an organ that can take information, components that can store it for longer periods of time, and then retrieve it whenever needed. 

There are five types of memory based on both sensory input and the duration of retention; Long-term memory, short-term memory, working memory, auditory memory, and visual memory. 

Working memory.

Working memory is defined as “the management, manipulation, and transformation of information drawn from short-term memory and long-term memory” (Dehn, 2008). In easier terms, it is the process that helps you do things by remembering. Let’s say I am typing this paragraph. This simple process is possible because the information from various memories is used simultaneously. I remember the words, how to type, how fast I am typing (muscle memory), and drawing information about auditory memory that I learned from the long term memory. There’s more to it, but you get the idea.

This working memory is closely connected with auditory and visual memory as the majority of the information is collected from them. Language comprehension, following direction, dictation, reading, vocabulary, understanding speech is all possible due to auditory and working memory. Issues with the echoic memory can hamper a person’s ability to think. A research done by Bellis in 2003 suggested that without auditory memory, we wouldn’t be able to process, remember or recall information

How auditory memory works?

Just like visual memory, auditory memory works by registering the audio input. As simple as this sentence may sound, it is not so simple when it comes to accurately test how auditory memory works. Visual memory has been studied properly as it easier for researchers to test it non-primate or primate animals.

You can show a chimpanzee different shapes for 3 seconds and then condition it to select the similar shape to get a treat (in fact, chimps have much better short term memory than humans). But how do you make a chimp or any animal remember words? And how to find whether they have remembered the audio? But there have been some studies done (Link) and there is some understanding of the mechanism of auditory memory.

When someone hears something, the brain receives it, processes it in the temporal lobe, and then associates the memory for storage using the pre-frontal cortex. This process is way more complicated in reality. A common technique used by the brain to remember information from auditory inputs is by repetition.

If you hear a number, let’s say an OTP (one-time-password), to keep that in mind, you keep repeating it over and over. This is to stimulate the neurons again and again until it registers properly in the short-term memory. But when it comes to complex information, the process gets complicated too. 

Illustration of brain for auditory memory
Image: The Spacefarer

Complex sensory input via audio 

In history class, suppose the lesson is about the Civil War. Let’s say I am the teacher and you are the student. Have someone read it out loud for you this excerpt and then I’ll elaborate the process your brain does to make sense out of it.

The event that triggered war came at Fort Sumter in Charleston Bay on April 12, 1861. Claiming this United States fort as their own, the Confederate army on that day opened fire on the federal garrison and forced it to lower the American flag in surrender. Lincoln called out the militia to suppress this “insurrection.” By the end of 1861 nearly a million armed men confronted each other along a line stretching 1200 miles from Virginia to Missouri.

When you heard the lines above, here is what your brain does. First you imagine a place that would fit the year 1861, then you imagine people attacking a large building resembling a fort and the lowering of the star-spangled banner. The word “Lincoln” makes you imagine the president with his iconic beard and hat. Finally you imagine a large number of soldiers. 

This is what auditory memory does by associating with the pre-frontal cortex. You may not remember the name “Fort Sumter” but you’ll surely remember that it was a fort.

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Issues with auditory memory

Thanks to your auditory memory, you were able to register that important paragraph into your memory. But what if you had some issues with your echoic memory? Then the paragraph above would make no sense at all. Let me add another example to simulate how you’d feel.

“He woke up dazed and confused in his hotel room without any idea how he came there…and he wondered why it was blue…opened the door but no one was there…the message on his phone said…won’t survive another night…you meet a man with a hat near the Plaza at 10 pm…And he fell.”

The paragraph made little to no sense, right? This is what happens when your auditory memory is not working properly. The reason for this is people with this issue cannot remember what they just heard. The memory cannot be formed and every sentence seems like a new one. I have shown the condition hyperbolically, but the reality is very similar.

Identifying Echoic memory impairments

Children with auditory memory impairment aren’t rare. But instances of successfully diagnosing the condition is. It is important to check whether children are having issues with remembering the things they hear. Auditory memory, just like every other memory can be improved with practice. But it is necessary to track it early. 

The indicators of weak auditory memory

The process of auditory memory
Image: The Spacefarer

These are some signs that may indicate that your child might be having some issues with auditory memory. If your child shows more than three signs, it is suggested that you try some of the tests mentioned later in the article.

  • Children might be having problems in understanding what is taught in the class, due to poor auditory memory.
  • They need more time and effort (concentration) to process information that they heard.
  • Children with issues in auditory memory have trouble doing tasks that have multiple steps. 
  • They get frustrated and annoyed while trying to understand by hearing or reading. 
  • They may also have issues developing their vocabulary, understanding language, and spelling words, understanding texts.
  • Getting completely distracted by background noise or having trouble concentrating even in a mildly noisy environment.
  • They might have issues with understanding directions or following a narrative or conversation.
  • They are disorganized or forgetful.
  • Auditory discrimination problems such as not being able to differentiate between same sound words such as “coat” and “boat”
  • Auditory cohesion problems that are evident inability to draw reference from the different conversations, etc.

Why act?

Children with this impairment must be found and taken care of. This isn’t just a problem that pertains to language processing and talking. This problem goes deep and can affect the psyche of the child. 

The first is the inability to compete with their counterparts in normal day-to-day tasks. This creates a sense of inferiority and a slump in self-confidence. They might feel that they are stupid. Not only that, but even teachers might get a similar idea which can make the case even worse.

The second and more dangerous problem is the frustration that comes with auditory memory impairment. Since the child cannot understand the texts, follow the conversation and mild noise can break their concentration, it gets difficult for them to work their way up in school. A prolonged experience like this can cause depression. This is exactly like the information in from one ear and out of the other. 

Apart from the ones mentioned, there are many other problems that come with it. These are auditory acuity deficits, language impairment, attention problems, poor working memory, etc. A study by Tirosh and Cohen found that auditory short-term memory was significantly related to ADHD and language problems. So what should you do if your child shows the sign of such memory impairment?

How to prevent issues associated with echoic memory impairment. 

It is recommended that you should consult a doctor to assess the treatment or training required to improve echoic memory. But there are a few things you can do at home and school to make your child’s experience easier. Here are the things to try;

  • Keep the instructions short and simple. Try not to complicate things. 
  • Slow down when you talk, try to make each word understandable for the child. 
  • Try improving the child’s vocabulary knowledge using visual stimulation.
  • Make them sit near the teacher so that they can hear them easily and clearly. 
  • Always check whether the child understood what was being taught. 
  • Reduce the background noise as much as you can to make it easier for them to understand.
  • Tell the children to freely express what they did not understand and what kind of trouble they are facing.
  • Never associate shame or pity with their inability to understand. 
  • Teach them to maintain an organized and clean environment. 
  • Use videos and interactive programs to make them learn.

Visual memory vs Auditory memory

It is believed that visual memory is better in registering information that auditory memory. Not just in humans, but animals as well. A study was done by Bigelow and Poremba in 2014 showed the data in the graphs added below. But why is that?

Bigelow and Poremba study showing the retention of memory of audio and visual memory.
Image adapted from Bigelow and Poremba in 2014

There are many reasons that could favor visual memory over echoic memory. Though visual stimulus lasts just for mere milliseconds as opposed to 3-5 seconds for auditory sensation, the retention in the case of visual input is better. There could be many reasons behind it but we think it is the association the brain makes with images and not with sounds. 

When you see an image, let’s say an image of an apple, you see the rich red color of it. You see the distinct shape of it and at the same time you associate the sweet taste of the apple. This enhances the retention because of the neurological connections it made in a second. This is not the case with listening to a word. I guess “a picture speaks a thousand words” is true. 

But adding some quality to the audio can help in retention. Instead of a monotonous dictation, varying the level of pitch and amplitude (mixing emotions) makes the information much more absorbable. This is why eloquent speakers can connect with the listeners. They know how to make you a better recipient of auditory information. 

A study by Cohen and the team done in 2011 showed that musicians had better auditory memory, but their visual memory was still better than the auditory counterpart. It is truly better to see for yourself than to hear it from someone else.  

Another reason that can attribute the brain’s favor for visual memory could be how information is served. Remember “a picture is worth a thousand words”? Well that is the case here as well. A picture gives all the information at once. If I want to tell you that a boy is drinking water from a fountain on a hot day, I can show you the picture. But if I tell you that verbally, there’s going to be a string of words, slowly revealing that it’s a sunny, hot day and a boy is drinking water from a water fountain. This needs more processing and if you have impairment in auditory memory, it would be tough for you to understand it.

I have linked some reference websites and researches that you can follow and know more about the subject. 

Neural circuits in auditory memory – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4868791/#R21

More about cognitive memory – https://www.cognifit.com/science/cognitive-skills/auditory

Auditory memory in Rhesus Monkeys – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3160873/

Dynamics of auditory working memory – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4426685/

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