Conducting research with babies invites many unique challenges. For example, infants don’t speak or respond to instructions very well. One of the ways researchers work around this limitation is by presenting images on a screen and measuring various aspects of the baby’s behavior. The UCLA Baby Lab uses this method in studies of infant visual attention. However, it’s often a challenge to entice babies to focus on the screen long enough to ensure they see all of the images in the study. To encourage them to focus, we play sounds along with images on a screen when we want to learn something about visual attention in infants, even if the sound is totally meaningless or an unrelated song.
I had previously thought that the sounds attracted and engaged infants’ attention, but I recently learned that my assumption may not be correct. Often when the brain perceives an auditory and visual stimulus very close in time or simultaneously, processing of the visual stimulus is enhanced. So when a visual stimulus is paired with a sound, it appears that people process the visual stimulus better because of the presence of the sound. A simultaneous sound might not capture attention, as we generally assume, but actually facilitate the processing of the image. Perhaps playing sounds for babies during our studies enhances their ability to process the visual information, making it easier and less boring for them to stay focused.
It might be that sounds (which are not distracting and have no independent meaning of their own) can help adults process visual information as well. If you’re interested, try it and see if it works for you as a strategy to process complex information.