Do You Only Hear What You Want to Hear?

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 Have you ever tuned out the doorbell or the phone ringing because you were absorbed in a book or video game? That’s due to selective hearing, a common phenomenon that affects many individuals. This occurs when one unconsciously blocks out something when interacting with a stimulus that the brain has chosen to focus on.

Selective hearing is caused by our brains’ limited ability to process information, i.e. being unable to process two stimuli at once.  Our brain chooses to selectively focus on certain stimuli. This could be good when interacting with a person and paying attention to him or her, but can be dangerous when blocking out noises such as important alarms and traffic.  The brain uses selective hearing more when multitasking. Therefore, multitasking should be avoided in order to focus our full attention on each task at hand.

Selective hearing is found in the auditory cortex of the human brain.  In an experiment conducted in the University of California San Francisco by Dr. Edward Chang and colleagues, it was found that people exhibited selective hearing when asked to focus on one of two speakers.  Researchers found that the patients’ neural responses in the auditory cortex only responded to the speaker they were asked to focus on. It was as if the second speaker wasn’t even there. Our brains focus on sounds and words we want to hear; this is why we become oblivious to background conversations until we hear our name mentioned.  It’s part of the human condition.