Academic journal article Human Factors

Auditory Distraction and Short-Term Memory: Phenomena

Academic journal article Human Factors

Auditory Distraction and Short-Term Memory: Phenomena

Article excerpt

Irrelevant sound tends to break through selective attention and impair cognitive performance. This observation has been brought under systematic scrutiny by laboratory studies measuring interference with memory performance during exposure to irrelevant sound. These studies established that the degree of interference depends on the properties of the irrelevant sound as well as those of the cognitive task. The way in which this interference increases or diminishes as characteristics of the sound and of the cognitive task are changed reveals key functional characteristics of auditory distraction. A number of important practical implications that arise from these studies are discussed, including the finding that relatively quiet background sound will have a marked effect on efficiency in performing cognitive tasks.

INTRODUCTION

While attempting to focus on a mental activity, most of us, at one time or another, have had our attention drawn by extraneous sound. Despite our best efforts to engage purposefully in reading, or writing, or remembering, sounds often seem to intrude on our awareness, without our invitation or, apparently, control. Evidently, these are instances in which our capacity to focus, to attend selectively to thoughts or events, suffers some kind of breakdown. Why should selective attention be vulnerable to disruption in this way? How is it that, on occasion, information reaching the brain through the eye while reading is subject to interference from information reaching the brain through the ear? This paper addresses this conundrum and its implications for understanding the control and volatility of attention.

For the human factors specialist, the distracting effect of sound commands interest for two main reasons. First, the human factors community has a long-standing interest in the effects of noise on performance of nonauditory tasks. In practical settings, there may be concern about reducing distraction on the flight deck, in the schoolhouse, or in the open-plan office. Second, there may be occasions when the system designer may wish to capture the attention of the person, and knowledge of auditory distraction can be put to good use in the design of auditory warnings and alarms. In the present paper we review a range of recent studies that focus on establishing the conditions under which a person may be distracted while undertaking a relatively complex mental task. Generically, these are known as irrelevant sound studies. Much of the work has been undertaken in the last 20 years or so (Colle & Welsh, 1976; Salame & Baddeley, 1982), but despite the obvious practical implications of this work, there has been no s ummary of the work for human factors practitioners. The volume and coherence of this work is now sufficiently great that some generalizations can be promulgated that may be useful guidelines for field work.

The work most closely related to irrelevant sound may be the substantial body of evidence relating the effects of white noise to the efficiency of performance, for which there have been several comprehensive reviews in the last 40 years or so (e.g., Jones & Broadbent, 1991). However, this research is distinct both in approach and, more especially, outcome, from that of the irrelevant sound research. In the older body of work, the major preoccupation is with the relation of the level of sound to deterioration in cognitive performance. In this work the quest is for a threshold level at which noise produces an effect on efficiency, and the key explanatory construct is the level of nonspecific activation (or arousal) produced by high levels of noise. By way of contrast, studies of irrelevant sound research have usually used speech and tones, rather than white noise, and have found large, replicable interference effects on cognitive processing. Research has focused mainly on characteristics of sound other than le vel, in part because these effects have been shown at low levels of sound pressure and because the degree of disruption does not appear to increase as level is increased. …

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