Selective Hearing

Selective hearing is something people often get accused of when they have apparently ignored something said by someone else that they didn't want to hear. However, contrary to the popular believe that this is simply an irritating personality trait, new research suggests that the brain can act like a radio, tuning into and out of different sounds and conversations.

Why this should come as a surprise is something of a mystery as it has been known for a long time that the human brain has severe limitations on its ability to simultaneously process multiple conscious thoughts. To prove this to yourself, try doing some mental arithmetic while reading this article - you will find that you can do one or the other, but not both at the same time.

To enable us to concentrate on the things we want to focus on given this limited conscious processing capacity, we have developed a fantastic ability to ignore things. Imagine for a moment what life would be like if you couldn't ignore things and instead had to process all information consciously - the sounds around you, smells, the feeling of your clothes against your skin, the tastes in your mouth, the movement you detect out of the corner of your eye. In short, if you were not able to ignore extraneous information from your senses you wouldn't be able to get anything done.

How the brain is able to be so selective has been an area of interest to neuroscientists for a long time. In the area of hearing it is believed that the auditory systems in the brain mix and match sounds from each ear and then filter out the unwanted noise based on its pitch and some concept of its importance. This is why people who live next to a busy railway line will sleep soundly when a train passes but may well be woken by the slightest of noises if that sound is unusual or unexpected.

Selective hearing should therefore not be viewed negatively. In fact, rather than regarding 'what we miss' negatively, we should instead celebrate our ability to ignore things as this is what enables us to concentrate. And the lesson we should learn is that if someone appears to have 'filtered out' something you said to them it is not necessarily their fault - it is your fault for having not gained their full attention before speaking to them!

Published May 2011

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