Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Sound Source Location Modulates the Irrelevant-Sound Effect

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Sound Source Location Modulates the Irrelevant-Sound Effect

Article excerpt

Participants memorized lists of visually presented digits in silence or while ignoring distractor sounds that either came from the front and thus from the direction in which participants' attention was oriented, or from behind. Distractor sounds impaired recall performance, but the largest impairment was observed when the sound source was directionally close to the frontal visual target display. The results are consistent with the assumption of cross-modal attentional links in models of attention, and they are problematic for explanations of the irrelevant-sound effect within working memory models that do not specify an explicit role of attention in the maintenance of information for immediate serial recall.

In a series of experiments on cross-modal spatial attention (see Driver & Spence, 2004, for a review), Spence, Ranson, and Driver (2000) asked participants to shadow an auditory message from behind while attending a visual stream of events in one of the frontal hemifields. In addition to the to-be-shadowed auditory message from behind, an irrelevant stream of spoken words was displayed in front of the participants. Shadowing performance was worse when the irrelevant stream of spoken words originated near the visual stream than when the irrelevant spoken words came from the opposite hemifield. This same-hemifield performance decrement was larger when participants were actively attending the stream of visual events (in order to detect and report visual targets) than when they simply had to fixate the visual stream. These data were interpreted as evidence in favor of models that posit cross-modal links in spatial attention in that apparently it was more difficult to ignore auditory distractors at visually attended locations than at some other point in space.

Spence et al. (2000) suggested that cross-modal links in spatial attention should also become apparent in other phenomena, most notably the so-called irrelevant-sound effect-that is, an impairment in immediate serial recall of short lists of visually presented items when irrelevant auditory stimuli are presented either during encoding or during retention (Banbury, Tremblay, Macken, & Jones, 2001). Spence et al. lamented a lack of studies investigating whether the size of the irrelevant-sound effect is affected by the spatial proximity of the distractor sound source and the target display location "despite the fundamental importance of this issue for models of cross-modal attention" (p. 411). The situation does not seem to have changed much in the past few years. To our knowledge, a study by Spence and Driver (1999, cited in Spence et al., 2000) is still the only one that speaks to the issue just mentioned, but this study is not readily available for evaluation. In essence, irrelevant spoken digits impaired the serial recall of visually presented digits, but this irrelevant-sound effect was not modulated by the proximity of the soundsource location and the visual-target display. Spence et al. speculated that this null result may have been due to the insensitivity of the "retrospective" serial recall measure as an indicator of on-line distractor rejection. One major goal of the research reported here was to reexamine the possible spatial modulation of the irrelevant-sound effect.

Interestingly-and apart from the question of the sensitivity of the serial recall measure-it is not at all clear that attention is involved in the processes leading to the irrelevant-sound effect in the first place (Jones, Macken, & Mosdell, 1997; Tremblay & Jones, 1998). Immediate serial recall is a typical working memory task in that information has to be maintained for a short amount of time until it can be recalled. The detrimental effects of irrelevant auditory distractors are therefore to be located in working memory as well. Elliott (2002) pointed out that theories of human working memory fall into one of two categories-theories that explicitly specify a role for attention in the maintenance of information and theories that do not. …

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