Patterns of sound – such as the noise of footsteps approaching or a person speaking – often provide valuable information. To recognize these patterns, our memory holds each part of the sound sequence long enough to perceive how they fit together.
This ability is necessary in many situations: from discriminating between random noises in the woods to understanding language and appreciating music. Memory traces left by each sound are crucial for discovering new patterns and recognizing patterns we have previously encountered.
However, it remained unclear whether sounds that reoccur sporadically can stick in our memory, and under what conditions this happens.
Sequential Auditory Pattern Memory
To answer this question, University College London’s Roberta Bianco and her team conducted a series of experiments where human volunteers listened to rapid sequences of 20 random tones interspersed with repeated patterns. Participants were asked to press a button as soon as they detected a repeating pattern.
Most of the patterns were new but some reoccurred every three minutes or so unbeknownst to the listener.
The researchers found that participants became progressively faster at recognizing a repeated pattern each time it reoccurred, gradually forming an enduring memory which lasted at least seven weeks after the initial training. The volunteers did not recognize these retained patterns in other tests suggesting they were unaware of these memories.
This suggests that as well as remembering meaningful sounds, like the melody of a song, people can also unknowingly memorize the complex pattern of arbitrary sounds, including ones they rarely encounter.
These findings provide new insights into how humans discover and recognize sound patterns which could help treat diseases associated with impaired memory and hearing. More studies are needed to understand what exactly happens in the brain as these memories of sound patterns are created, and whether this also happens for other senses and in other species.
 Roberta Bianco,, Peter MC Harrison, Mingyue Hu, Cora Bolger, Samantha Picken, Marcus T Pearce, Maria Chait. Long-term implicit memory for sequential auditory patterns in humans. eLife 2020;9:e56073 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.56073