Research Tuesday: Children’s Auditory Working Memory in Noisy Conditions

September 9, 2014 BY Kira Wright, CCC-SLP

Autumn, in my professional life as a school-based SLP, is a fresh slate, the start of a new cycle, and a time to start new habits. It is that, and it is also the chaos of trying to pick up where I left off, put together a schedule from pieces that don’t seem to fit, all while making efforts to educate myself on the new developments in education and pedagogy.  

It was in that mindset that I came across this study looking at the impact of noise and chaos on students’ cognitive skills, specifically working memory. Strong cognitive skills, including working memory, allow us to compensate for less than ideal circumstances. Auditory working memory in particular is a strong predictor of academic and communicative success. 

The Details: Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, August 2014, Vol. 57, 1503-1511. doi:10.1044/2014_JSLHR-H-13-0286.

The Question: These researchers wanted to know if students would perform more poorly on a task of auditory working memory in a noisy environment than in a quiet one. Additionally, they wanted to know if the change in performance on the task might be related the difficulty of the task. In other words, they thought that a noisy environment might have only a slight impact on an easy task, but a more significant impact on a challenging task.

The Method: Researchers met with 20 typically developing students between 8 and 10 years old. They gave them a series of 3 memory tasks, in a quiet sound booth and in the presence of competing four-talker babble noise. The simpler task were Forward Digit Recall (repeat the numbers you heard) and Backward Digit Recall (repeat the numbers you heard in reverse order). The cognitively challenging task, also presented in quiet and in babble noise, was called Listening Recall, where students listened to an increasing number of sentences and then were asked to judge each sentence true or false, and recall the last word of each sentence. 

The Results: It is not surprising that students performed better on auditory memory tasks in quiet than in noisy environments. The more interesting piece is it didn’t matter how challenging the task was. Each task was affected by noise in a similar manner. 

The Take-Away: Overall, for the 8-10 year olds participating in this study, auditory working memory performance on all kinds of tasks decreased as listening conditions worsened. The interesting post script, though, is that the effect of complexity of a working memory task in noise has been well documented in adults. This suggests that the skills required for working in background noise or managing additional simultaneous cognitive tasks continue to develop throughout adulthood. This is important for those of us in working with students – the cognitive load of a given task is impacted by the context. And classrooms can be full of babble noise!