Hearing management

31 May 2011

How focus silences noise around us

How can someone with perfectly normal hearing become deaf to the world around them when their mind is on something else? Researchers have termed this 'inattentional deafness'.


How can someone with perfectly normal hearing become deaf to the world around them when their mind is on something else? New research funded by the Wellcome Trust suggests that focusing heavily on a task results in the experience of deafness to perfectly audible sounds.

In a study published in the journal 'Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics', researchers at UCL (University College London) demonstrate for the first time this phenomenon, which they term 'inattentional deafness'.

"Inattentional deafness is a common everyday experience," explains Professor Nilli Lavie from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL. "For example, when engrossed in a good book or even a captivating newspaper article we may fail to hear the train driver's announcement and miss our stop, or if we're texting whilst walking, we may fail to hear a car approaching and attempt to cross the road without looking."

Hearing and concentration tested

Professor Lavie and her PhD student James Macdonald devised a series of experiments designed to test for inattentional deafness. In these experiments, over a hundred participants performed tasks on a computer involving a series of cross shapes.

Some tasks were easy, asking the participants to distinguish a clear colour difference between the cross arms. Others were much more difficult, involving distinguishing subtle length differences between the cross arms.

Participants wore headphones whilst carrying out the tasks and were told these were to aid their concentration. At some point during task performance a tone was played unexpectedly through the headphones. At this point, immediately after the sound was played, the experiment was stopped and the participants asked if they had heard this sound.

When judging the respective colours of the arms - an easy task that takes relatively little concentration - around two in ten participants missed the tone. However, when focusing on the more difficult task - identifying which of the two arms was the longest - eight out of ten participants failed to notice the tone.

Being engrossed makes you deaf/blind

The researchers believe this deafness when attention is fully taken by a purely visual task is the result of our senses of seeing and hearing sharing a limited processing capacity. It is already known that people similarly experience 'inattentional blindness' when engrossed in a task that takes up all of their attentional capacity - for example, the famous Invisible Gorilla Test, where observers engrossed in a basketball game fail to observe a man in a gorilla suit walk past.

The new research now shows that being engrossed in a difficult task makes us blind and deaf to other sources of information.

"Hearing is often thought to have evolved as an early warning system that does not depend on attention, yet our work shows that if our attention is taken elsewhere, we can be effectively deaf to the world around us," explains Professor Lavie. "In our task, most people noticed the sound if the task being performed was easy and did not demand their full concentration. However, when the task was harder they experienced deafness to the very same sound."

Other examples or real world situations include inattentional deafness whilst driving. It is well documented that a large number of accidents are caused by a driver's inattention and this new research suggests inattentional deafness is yet another contributing factor.

For example, although emergency vehicle sirens are designed to be too loud to ignore, other sounds - such as a lorry beeping while reversing, a cyclist's bell or a scooter horn - may be missed by a driver focusing intently on some interesting visual information such as a roadside billboard, the advert content on the back of the bus in front or the map on a sat nav. - (EurekAlert, May 2011)

Read more:

The perception of sound
An epidemic of deafness?


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Hearing Expert

Francis Slabber is a Speech & Language Therapist and Audiologist who has owned and run The Hearing Clinic in Wynberg, Cape Town for the last 17 years. Francis and her team have extensive experience in fitting and supplying hearing aids as well as assistive living devices. Francis has served as the Western Cape Chairperson for the South African Association of Audiologists for three years and has given many talks on the topic of hearing loss and amplification. The Hearing Clinic has a special interest in adult and geriatric hearing impairment, hearing aid fittings and hearing rehabilitation.

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