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You may have heard of selective hearing, but do you know what causes it and who is affected? Learn more in this week’s latest Audicus blog!


Selective Hearing: What It Means


Selective hearing, or hearing loss by attention, is a common phenomenon that affects a wide range of individuals. It occurs when we unconsciously block out sounds while interacting with a stimulus that we have deliberately chosen to focus on or are very interested in.

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Some examples include missing out on the sound of a doorbell while focusing on a video game, failing to hear traffic while listening to someone speak, or zoning out on a ringing phone call because of a crossword puzzle.


In these instances, it isn’t that the noise of the activity we’re committed to completely drowns out the noise of the background, but rather our brains make the decision to selectively focus on one stimulus.


Selective hearing and the Human Brain


The phenomenon of selective hearing has a scientific basis and has been examined in the auditory cortex of the human brain.


In a 2012 study from the University of California San Francisco, Dr. Edward Chang and colleagues found that patients exhibited selective hearing when asked to focus their attention on one of two speakers in a given experiment.


The researchers found that the neural responses in the auditory cortex of these patients only corresponded to the person they were asked to focus on when two speakers were talking simultaneously. To the patients being tested, it was as if the second speaker wasn’t talking at all.


In a lot of cases, our brains focus on words or sounds that we want to hear. This is why we could be oblivious to a conversation going on in the background until one of the people involved in that conversation says our name.


Selective Hearing: Cause and Solution


Selective hearing in the context of trying to process both visual and auditory stimuli (for example, missing out on a doorbell because you were busy reading a book) might occur because we have “limited brain bandwidth.”


That is, our brain has a limited capacity to process information, and therefore it can’t process two stimuli at once.


The idea of “limited brain bandwidth” is supported by the fact that certain images can become invisible to us if we are already tuned in to visual stimuli. For example, focusing on an interesting game of basketball might distract you from a person walking in the background who you would have noticed otherwise.


Selective hearing can be harmful in certain contexts. Not being able to hear the sound of traffic when crossing the street or missing out on the noise given off by an alarm can prove to be very dangerous.


You can avoid instances of selective hearing by cutting down on multitasking, avoiding the use of sound technology when walking in public, and using hearing aids to make yourself more conscious of your surroundings.


Sources: University of California San Francisco

By: Aaron Rodriques