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Is speech special? The impact of familiarity with irrelevant background sound on working memory

McCorkell, Nicola (2012) Is speech special? The impact of familiarity with irrelevant background sound on working memory. Edinburgh Napier University.


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Working memory is a limited capacity storage system where information is retained and manipulated for a brief period of time. It is susceptible, however, to interference from corresponding sensory stimuli. Irrelevant background sound is consistently demonstrated to detrimentally interfere with the serial recall of visually presented items, however there remains debate for which properties of audio elicit the effect. The current study assessed the impact of familiarity with background music, along with speech, using variations of a familiar and unfamiliar song. A sample of 24 undergraduate students (11 males, aged M = 23, SD = 3.61) were opportunistically recruited. Six conditions were employed; silence, white noise, original track, otherwise equivalent instrumental music, recorded spoken lyrics and spoken lyrics over instrumental music. All participants were exposed to each condition in a pseudo-random order, while completing serial recall tasks. A significant main effect was found for sound (p <.01), and familiarity (p <.01), while speech over the instrumental music elicited the worst recall performance. The results suggest that fluctuation in acoustic properties is not the sole determinant of the irrelevant sound effect, but familiarity and speech may play a critical role in the degree of interference that unattended auditory stimulus provokes. Extensive analysis of which features in speech, and differing levels of familiarity, is required in order to reach definitive conclusions.

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