They say seeing is believing — you’ll remember it later. And people who shop often touch clothes, looking for that familiar feel. Yet, when it comes to our hearing, we need extensive training to remember things, like that phone number you got last night. Even if you did remember it today, would you remember it tomorrow? A new study finds that these functions are pretty normal, with many people being unable to remember what they heard when compared to what they saw and touched.

“We tend to think that the parts of our brain wired for memory are integrated. But our findings indicate our brain may use separate pathways to process information,” said Amy Poremba, associate professor at the University of Iowa Department of Psychology, in a press release. Specifically, auditory information may be processed differently than things that are seen or touched, she said — a finding that has been supported through research with monkeys.

For their study, the researchers first tested a group of 54 undergraduate students on a series of short-term memory tasks. The students were asked to listen to tones heard through headphones; to see different shades of red squares; and to feel low-intensity vibrations through an aluminum bar. After intervals ranging from one to 32 seconds, a second stimulus emerged, and students were asked immediately afterward if it was the same or different to the one before. As they expected, fewer people remembered the sounds when compared to the vibrations or squares.

For their second test, the researchers asked 82 other students to watch a silent basketball game, hear recordings of dogs barking, or touch common items, like coffee mugs, that were blocked from view. Some of them were asked to recall what they saw, felt, and heard an hour after the test, while others were asked the next day or a week later. Again, more people forgot what they heard, compared to what they felt and saw, no matter when they were asked to remember.

The researchers said that the results could help teachers and advertisers, among others, to develop better ways of communicating. “As teachers we want to assume students will remember everything we say,” Poremba said in the release. “But if you really want something to be memorable you may need to include a visual or hands-on experience, in addition to auditory information.”

Indeed, that much is obvious. It’s one thing to hear about how something works, and another to see it, or do it with your own hands. “Experiential learning gives students the opportunity to take what they learn in class and apply it to real world situations,” said Scott Gravina, a senior lecturer in Hispanic studies at Brandeis University.

Another way of taking auditory stimuli and making it visual or tactile is through mnemonics, which is the use of visual or familiar cues to remember something else. “Roy G. Biv,” for example, is an acronym for the colors of a rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). Other people may remember the order of the planets through the sentence, “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos.”

“As it turns out, there is merit to the Chinese proverb, ‘I hear, and I forget; I see, and I remember,” said lead author of the study James Bigelow, a graduate student at the university, in the release, adding that “touch” might need to be included to the adage.     

Source: Bigelow J, Poremba A. Achilles’ Ear? Inferior Human Short-Term and Recognition Memory in the Auditory Modality. PLoS One. 2014.