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(Last updated 5/27/03)



COLUMBUS, Ohio -- For an adult, a picture might be worth a thousand words, but to an infant or young child, it that may not always be the case.

Vladimir Sloutsky

A new study found that young children preferred and paid more attention to sounds than to visual images when they were presented simultaneously.

While other studies have shown that infants preferred sounds over visual information, this is the first to show that this auditory preference extends to preschoolers with an average age of 4 years.

“Adults generally prefer visual information if they have the choice. But if you want to get the attention of young children, sounds are generally more effective than pictures if the sounds and pictures have equal interest,” said Vladimir Sloutsky, professor in the Center for Cognitive Science at Ohio State University.

Sloutsky said young children probably are more attuned to sounds than visuals because this auditory preference helps them acquire language.

While it takes some time to process words and sounds, visual scenes are processed quickly by the brain. And scenes and objects viewed by the eyes are often stationary, while words and sounds are events that pass quickly.

Sloutsky, who is also associate dean of research for the university’s College of Human Ecology, co-authored the study with Amanda Napolitano, a graduate student at Ohio State. Their research appears in the current (May/June 2003) issue of the journal Child Development.

The researchers conducted several related studies. In one study, 15 preschool children and 20 adults viewed a photo image (a landscape with green foliage) and heard a sound (three simple tones) simultaneously on a computer. They were told to remember that sound-image set and indicate when it appeared again on the computer. During the test, which immediately followed, the participants saw the “correct” picture with a new sound and the “correct” sound with a new picture.

In children, the majority consistently chose the set with the correct sound as the right choice over multiple tests (53 percent chose the correct sound, 15 percent chose the correct visual, and 23 percent gave mixed responses). However, for the adults, 100 percent chose the set with the correct visual as the right choice.

Obviously, the adults were somewhat confused with the choice because they knew the sound and image no longer matched properly, Sloutsky said. However, he said the adults “made the strategic choice” that the right visual was most important. The children in the study, however, gave no indication that the choice of the correct sound over the correct visual was difficult for them.

However the first experiment raised several interesting questions, he said. For one, maybe young children are unable to process visual stimuli such as the pictures in the first experiment. So the researchers repeated the experiment but with no sounds at all -- the children simply had to choose the correct image. In this experiment, the children had no problem choosing the right picture.

“This suggests processing visual information is not difficult for children, but they prefer auditory stimuli,” he said.

In another study, the researchers aimed to eliminate any confusion that the participants might have had in the first experiment when the right sound was paired with the wrong image and vice versa. In this case, participants were once again shown an image paired with a sound and told to indicate when that set appeared again. But this time they were tested on four sets -- the correct image and the correct sound; a different image and a different sound; a different image and the correct sound; and the correct image and a different sound.

The children did very well at correctly indicating that the set with the correct visual and the correct sound was right, and that the set with the different picture and different sound was wrong. In both cases they got more than 88 percent of the trials right.

They also did very well at rejecting sets with different sounds but the correct image (more than 80 percent right). However, they were very poor at rejecting sets that had the correct sound but a different image (only 30 percent right).

“Overall this shows that children are more likely to pay attention to the auditory stimuli -- the sounds -- than to visual stimuli,” Sloutsky said.

At the same time, adults had no problem choosing the right sets in any of the four conditions.

These experiments were repeated using different types of visuals -- simple geometric shapes such as triangles and squares -- rather than more complicated landscapes. Still, the children paid more attention and preferred the sounds over the images.

Sloutsky said other studies have shown an auditory preference in 6- to 10-month-old infants. This was explained by the fact that the auditory system developed during the last trimester of pregnancy, while the visual system does not start functioning until after birth.

“It was generally accepted this auditory dominance would disappear by late infancy as the visual system matured, but there had been little research,” he said. “This study shows that the auditory dominance found in infants continues well into the preschool years.”

Sloutsky said the demands of learning language probably requires that toddlers have a preference for sounds over visuals.

While it takes some time to process words and sounds, visual scenes are processed quickly by the brain. And scenes and objects viewed by the eyes are often stationary, while words and sounds are events that pass quickly.

“So you have these things working against language,” Sloutsky said. “If auditory information isn’t given some preference, why would toddlers even attend to learning language?”

New research by Sloutsky and his colleagues indicates that children begin switching from an auditory preference to a visual preference at about 5 years of age -- about a year older than the children in this study. By that time, he said, children have done most of the work in language acquisition.

However, Sloutsky emphasized that the results don’t mean that visual information isn’t important to young children. In this study, both the sounds and pictures had equal familiarity to the children. In real life, many sights and visuals will be more familiar to children than the sounds around them. In these cases, children will have no problem processing these visuals and paying close attention to them, he said.

This study was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation.


Contact: Vladimir Sloutsky, (614) 292-7594; Sloutsky.1@osu.edu
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu