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The Science Behind Selective Hearing

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Crowded lecture halls, work conferences, packed house parties — put a bunch of people in a room and it can get pretty noisy, with multiple conversations going on all at once. Yet somehow, most of us are able to tune out the masses (or simply the TV) and tune in to our personal discussions. How do we do it? Recent research suggests that selective hearing is, in fact, a real thing. We break down what’s going on in our brains when we decide what we want to hear.

Listen Close - What's the Deal?

Not only do our brains decide which conversations we want to tune into; they also give us the capacity to focus on said conversations to the exclusion of other, simultaneous discussions competing for our attention.

Our ability to select what we hear (in the most literal sense) was coined the “cocktail party effect” by British scientist Colin Cherry in the1950s. The term has gained public traction in the past few years thanks to ongoing research. One of the most notable studies was conducted in 2010, when researchers at the University of California, San Francisco used an advanced decoding algorithm to learn that participants' brains were able to target one speaker another, simultaneous speaker.

Amazingly enough, the researchers were even able to determine the specific words a given participant was listening to by analyzing patterns in their brain activity. Based on these assessments, the researchers determined that our brains are designed to prioritize some auditory cues over others — say, that piece of juicy gossip or the football score over the request to fold the laundry. (Let’s admit it: We’ve all been there!)

So what makes some things stick while others (like a request to pick up the milk or take the dog out) float through one ear and out the other? According to one study, how or what we choose to listen to (over other sounds) is dependent on background noise and stimuli as well as behavioral goals — in other words, how important the conversation is to you relative to other things that are going on. Call this the “Homer Simpson Effect,” says Greatist Expert Paul Zak. “Some people don’t seem to listen well to others unless they view the other person or what they are saying as very important.” Greatist Expert Michael Mantell concurs. “If my goal is to watch the end of a baseball game, a competing goal [such as folding the laundry] is not likely to draw my attention.”

Visual cues are also important. One study found these cues are often given before auditory signals and may aid in our perception and understanding of speech. These visual cues may serve a predictive role, so if you catch the eye of the guy or girl across the bar and they smile, you might just get the nerve to go over and start a conversation.

The Hear and Now - Why It Matters

Thanks to advancements in technology and brain research, we can say with scientific certainty that selective hearing does exist. The reason, says Zak, is that our attention is an expensive resource in the brain — so we choose to focus only on what we deem most important. This also means we can’t multitask (text message, email, etc.) and truly listen to a conversation at the same time.

So perhaps what good listening comes down to is clarifying for ourselves what is really most important: Is it making it to the next level on Wii Fit, or is it cultivating a relationship in which our partner (or roommate) feels heard, respected, and valued? If we choose to prioritize the latter, maybe next time we’ll be able to focus more on a partner's request to wash the dishes and less on the screen in front of us.

Whatever your priorities, this research can do more than give us leverage when calling out the significant other for forgetting to pick up the dry cleaning. Recent findings will also contribute to future work on aging, attention deficit disorder, and understanding the brains of people on the autism spectrum. The decoding algorithm used by the researchers at UC-San Francisco, specifically, may help scientists understand what is being heard by people who are paralyzed or unable to communicate.

Recognizing the way our brains’ speech systems operate is also of utmost importance to consumer technology companies who develop voice-activated products. Who knows what cool electronics will come from this research — Siri 2.0, anyone?

Do you believe that selective hearing is real? Do you choose to listen “selectively” sometimes? Share your experiences in the comments below!


Image via Andrea Danti/

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