11:43pm Wednesday 20 September 2017

Moderate noise level can help learning

Sverker Sikström

In the spring he will be launching a new app to help people who have difficulty concentrating. At the moment, however, he spends most of his time refuting prevalent theories of how our working memory operates.


The working memory is what we need to manage our daily lives. The prevalent view is that information is stored in the working memory by a pattern of cells, which send out nerve impulses. The pattern from the active cells represents a word or an object. When several memories are active in the working memory, many patterns are maintained simultaneously. We can keep track of roughly seven things before we start to forget. Now Sverker Sikström is attempting to evaluate whether working memory really operates in the way we believe.

“The argument against this is that it would be uneconomical for the brain, because it takes a lot of energy to produce a memory”, says Sverker Sikström. “Moreover, there would be a major risk that we would mix things up if we were keeping several memories going at the same time.”

Sverker Sikström is carrying out his study together with Anders Lansner from KTH. At KTH there are advanced computer programs which recreate the brain’s signal system, i.e. how the nerve paths are connected. The computer simulations have shown that the memories are not activated simultaneously in our working memory, but rather are brought out and put back as we need them. They ‘oscillate’ back and forth, as Sverker Sikström puts it.

In particular, Professor Sikström and his research group have studied how humans learn lists of words and his model explains why we remember the words at the start of the list better than those towards the end. The next step is to do computer simulations with other conditions that we know influence memory, for example the length of the word, how many seconds the word is shown for and disturbances.

“How people store information is a very fundamental and important issue”, says Sverker Sikström. “By understanding how we remember things, we can better form strategies to improve our memory.”

The step from basic research to application is sometimes long, but not always. Sverker Sikström also studies how noise affects our learning. A while ago, he was able to overturn the prevalent conception that all noise disturbs the learning process. For those people who have difficulty concentrating, the opposite was shown to be true; a moderately loud noise (‘white noise’ at the same volume as a vacuum cleaner) makes it easier for them to concentrate.

Now Sverker Sikström and Göran Söderlund are developing an app which first tells the user whether he or she belongs to the category of people who find it helpful to learn in a noisy environment. If they do, the app can provide the user with a suitably loud noise to improve his or her concentration. Their newly founded company is called Smartnoise and the app will be launched in the early spring.

– Ulrika Oredsson

Sverker Sikström has shown that people who have difficulty concentrating find it easier to concentrate if they listen to moderately loud ‘white noise’ at the same volume as a vacuum cleaner.

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