An ear for statistics

A study finds that sound textures are stored in auditory memory as summary statistics representing the sound over long time scales; specific events are superimposed, forming a ‘skeleton of events on a bed of texture’.

What do we retain of the incessant streams of sound that reach our ears? Potentially, there is a lot to remember: the popular MP3 format, designed on the basis of human perceptual limits, stores anywhere from 32 to 320 kbits for each second1. Remembering sensory input is useful, for example to spot recurring patterns that might be of survival value, such as the soft footsteps of a predator. And yet we cannot retain it all because our memory would fill up, and patterns would be hard to find. Besides, most of the detail of our sensory experience is of little use, as argued eloquently by Jorge Luis Borges in the short story “Funes, the Memorious.” So what should we keep and what should we discard? In this issue, McDermott et al.2 make a major contribution to this question, showing that for a certain class of sounds that they call “textures,” all that we remember is a small set of summary statistics…

Authors: Nelken I, de Cheveigné A.
Year of publication: 2013
Journal: Nat Neurosci. 2013 Apr;16(4):381-2.

Link to publication:


“Working memory”