Nonverbal auditory working memory: Can music indicate the capacity?

Brain & Cognition (2016)

Eunju Jeong & Hokyoung Ryu


Abstract: Different working memory (WM) mechanisms that underlie words, tones, and timbres have been proposed in previous studies. In this regard, the present study developed a WM test with nonverbal sounds and compared it to the conventional verbal WM test. A total of twenty-five, non-music major, righthanded college students were presented with four different types of sounds (words, syllables, pitches, timbres) that varied from two to eight digits in length. Both accuracy and oxygenated hemoglobin (oxyHb) were measured. The results showed significant effects of number of targets on accuracy and sound type on oxyHb. A further analysis showed prefrontal asymmetry with pitch being processed by the right hemisphere (RH) and timbre by the left hemisphere (LH). These findings suggest a potential for employing musical sounds (i.e., pitch and timbre) as a complementary stimuli for conventional nonverbal WM tests, which can additionally examine its asymmetrical roles in the prefrontal regions.

Our findings indicate the potential use of nonverbal sounds (i.e., music) as an assessment medium for working memory. A relatively weaker hemodynamic activation shown in both pitch and timbre processing implies a certain benefit for some individuals who have dysfunctions in cognition such as mild cognitive impairments (MCI) or Alzheimer’s disease.
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