Objects with similar sounds are easier to remember

Why are overlapping sounds easier to remember?

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Language plays an important role in memory. Memory and language are so closely linked that even hearing single words can change how we remember events.

A new study led by Northwestern University Ph.D. students Matias Fernandez-Duque and Viorica Marian, Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders, indicates that words with similar sounds but different meanings are easier to remember if they overlap phonologically with the target word, even if they overlap.

The researchers showed individuals grids with photographs of four objects and asked them to click on one of the four in English. However, some grids included an additional object with a like-sounding name in either English or Spanish. The eye movements of participants in the trial were also captured.

Researchers presented people with grids containing four images of objects. Then, an audio recording instructed them to select one of the four in English. It was simple enough to complete and took most participants no longer than a few seconds.

The only issue was that some of the grids also included an object that sounded comparable in either English or Spanish. During the experiment, people’s eye movements were recorded. The researchers discovered that many respondents glanced at the square holding the similar-sounding object for milliseconds before clicking.

Researchers found that objects with similar sounds are easier to remember. For example, the word “candy” is similar to the English word “candle,” but the Spanish word “candado” means “padlock.”

If someone who spoke English was asked to find a piece of candy in a grid containing a candle, they might focus briefly on it. In contrast, someone who spoke both English and Spanish might have focused on the padlock (“candado”), despite being asked to find the candy in English.

Image showing tortoise.
Researchers find that people remember words better if they overlap phonologically with a target word. Take, for example, tortoise and torte. Credit: Northwestern University

People generally only took longer on the test when they looked at other objects. However, it improved their memories of non-target objects. When asked afterward which items they had previously seen, more respondents remembered words that sounded similar to the target word than other objects in the grids that did not overlap phonologically.

Spanish proficiency was important among Spanish speakers. Those with a higher degree of proficiency were more likely to have improved recall of similar-sounding things. According to the study, this might be because the Spanish names for the objects displayed in the grid came to mind more rapidly for them despite the English prompts.

The findings might help them to understand the link between language, memory, and cognition. Future research might investigate whether grouping similar-sounding items may help aging persons with memory issues or boost learning in school settings for those learning a new language.

The phrase “the eyes are the window to the soul” is common, but in this case, experts suggest that they are windows into the mind.

The Bilingualism and Psycholinguistics Research Laboratory, Marian’s lab in the School of Communication, has also investigated the effects of bilingualism from various perspectives, including education, sensory perception, audio-visual integration, decision-making, and more.

The study was funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Journal Reference:

  1. Matias Fernandez-Duque,Viorica Marian, et al. Speakers of different languages remember visual scenes differently. Science Advances. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adh0064