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Can’t Remember a Name? Blame Background Noise

Can’t Remember a Name? Blame Background Noise

Emerging research suggests that although music may help some people relax when they’re trying to concentrate, the ‘noise’ may impede memory, especially as one ages.

That’s the finding in a new Georgia Institute of Technology study that challenged younger and older adults to listen to music while trying to remember names.

Researchers found that background music did not influence the memory of college-aged participants but the older adults remembered 10 percent fewer names when listening to background music or musical rain as compared to silence.

The findings could have implications for senior living centers and people who prefer to hold meetings away from the office.

The Georgia Tech researchers wanted to replicate everyday life because music and background noise are everywhere.

Their study tested how music or background noise effects associative memory, which includes the ability to put a face with a name and remember it.

Study participants looked at a series of faces and names and were asked if the person “looked like” the assigned name. The faces were shown again a few minutes later.

Participants had to determine whether the name and face combinations were the same as before.

Sometimes people did the test in silence. Other times they listened to musical rain or non-lyrical rock music, including lesser-known songs from Eric Clapton, Jefferson Airplane, and Rush.

“Both age groups agreed that the music was distracting,” said Sarah Reaves, the Georgia Tech psychology graduate student who led the study.

“But only the older adults struggled while it was playing in the background.”

Reaves and her advisor, School of Psychology Assistant Professor Audrey Duarte, linked the results with the well-known cocktail party effect. This is a phenomenon that allows people to solely focus their attention on one conversation even while surrounded by multiple conversations or loud music.

“Older adults have trouble ignoring irrelevant noises and concentrating,” says Duarte.

“Associative memory also declines with age. As we get older, it’s harder to remember what name went with a face or where a conversation took place.”

Reaves notes that the study could help workers in assisted living centers as they plan activities.

“They should be mindful of their surroundings. Maybe employees should turn off music during learning activities or hold them in a quiet room,” she said.

“Similarly, older adults who struggle to concentrate while meeting with co-workers at a coffee shop, for example, should schedule meetings in quieter locations.

When people get lost while driving, it’s probably best to turn off the radio.”

Source: Georgia Institute of Technology

Can’t Remember a Name? Blame Background Noise

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Can’t Remember a Name? Blame Background Noise. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 13 Feb 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.