The influence of working memory on auditory category learning in the presence of visual stimuli

(1) Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA), Austin, Texas, (2) Department of Communication Science and Disorders, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
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In our daily lives, our brains process categories of information that allow us to recognize and respond appropriately to objects and situations. For example, auditory category learning involves differentiating between sounds and learning the optimal strategy for sorting sounds into various categories. In the complex, multimodal world, we learn under distracting conditions, with both relevant and irrelevant information. However, in the lab, learning is often studied under quiet and focused conditions with limited distractions. In this study, we explored the association between working memory capacity and auditory category learning in the presence of visual distractor stimuli. We trained participants on one of two types of auditory categories that are linked to distinct neural learning mechanisms, rule-based or information-integration, in the presence of simple or complex visual distractors. We assessed working memory capacity using an operation span task, which includes answering simple math questions while memorizing a sequence of letters. We found that individuals with higher working memory capacity had higher overall task accuracy, regardless of the type of category they learned or the type of visual distractors they had to process. Higher working memory capacity was also associated with higher accuracy on questions about the visual distractors. These results shed light on how auditory category learning proceeds under distracting conditions and the importance of understanding the implications. While some students may be less affected by distracting stimuli, such as music, TV, and conversation, others may be more impacted by distractions.

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