Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Evidence for Habituation of the Irrelevant-Sound Effect on Serial Recall

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Evidence for Habituation of the Irrelevant-Sound Effect on Serial Recall

Article excerpt

Published online: 8 November 2013

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2013

Abstract Working memory theories make opposing predictions as to whether the disruptive effect of task-irrelevant sound on serial recall should be attenuated after repeated exposure to the auditory distractors. Although evidence of habituation has emerged after a passive listening phase, previous attempts to observe habituation to to-be ignored distractors on a trial-by-trial basis have proven to be fruitless. With the present study, we suggest that habituation to auditory distractors occurs, but has often been overlooked because past attempts to measure habituation in the irrelevant-sound paradigm were not sensitive enough. In a series of four experiments, the disruptive effects of to-be-ignored speech and music relative to a quiet control condition were markedly reduced after eight repetitions, regardless of whether trials were presented in blocks (Exp. 1) or in a random order (Exp. 2). The auditory distractor's playback direction (forward, backward) had no effect (Exp. 3). The same results were obtained when the auditory distractors were only presented in a retention interval after the presentation of the to-be-remembered items (Exp. 4). This pattern is only consistent with theoretical accounts that allow for attentional processes to interfere with the maintenance of information in working memory.

Keywords Irrelevant sound effect . Working memory . Attentional orienting . Serial recall . Selective attention

A basic feature of the auditory system is that it is always "open" for environmental information. Unlike in the visual system, ears cannot be "closed" to regulate the sensory input. This incapability facilitates the detection of potentially relevant but previously unattended information. However, the auditory system's openness comes at the cost of enhanced distractibility (e.g., Escera, Alho, Schröger, & Winkler, 2000), to-be-ignored auditory information usually disrupts ongoing task performance (Beaman, Neath, & Surprenant, 2008; Bell, Röer, & Buchner, 2013; Elliott & Briganti, 2012; Schlittmeier, Weisz, & Bertrand, 2011; Sörqvist, Nöstl, & Halin, 2012)

The irrelevant-sound effect

The irrelevant-sound effect refers to the disruption of serial recall by auditory distractors. Distraction is equally large, regardless of whether the irrelevant sound is played during list presentation or during retention (Buchner, Bell, Rothermund, & Wentura, 2008; Buchner, Rothermund, Wentura, & Mehl, 2004; Miles, Jones, & Madden, 1991), indicating that item maintenance in working memory is impaired, and not only encoding. Disruption is predominantly determined by the number of changing states (abrupt changes in frequency or amplitude) within the distractor sequence. The changing-state effect refers to the phenomenon that changing- state sequences consisting of different distractor items (lists of words, speech, melodies) impair serial recall more than steady-state sequences consisting of a single repeated item. Accordingly, speech and nonspeech sounds cause equal amounts of disruption (Jones & Macken, 1993; Tremblay, Nicholls, Alford, & Jones, 2000)whentheycontainthesame amount of acoustic variability. Lastly, sequences with deviant distractors (such as a distractor word spoken in a different voice) are known to disrupt serial recall more than do sequences without deviant distractors (Hughes, Vachon, & Jones, 2005;Lange,2005; Vachon, Hughes, & Jones, 2012).

Habituation to auditory distractors

Despite the consensus regarding most of the phenomenon's key aspects, there is disagreement with regard to the habituation to auditory distractors. Testing whether the irrelevant-sound effect habituates greatly helps to evaluate competing working memory models. According to the embedded-processes model (Cowan, 1995, 1999), the changing-state effect is explained exclusively by habituation. …

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