Selective Hearing Is Real

selective hearing

There’s probably someone in your life that has moments of selective hearing. You talk to them when they’re right next to you and they don’t even hear you. But in a crowded room they can block out the noise and clearly hear one person’s conversation. Researchers studied these human behaviors and discovered how selective hearing works.

Hearing impairment
Some people have a legitimate reason why they miss conversations. Their hearing is impaired due to damage caused by prolonged exposure to loud noises, disease, accident or illness, medications or naturally as part of the aging process.

Partner listening skills
For hundreds of years, women have complained that men, in particular their spouses, selectively listen to conversations. A study conducted in England provided proof that this does occur. Researchers discovered:

  • On average, men listen for six minutes in discussions about general topics with their spouse or significant other.
  • Men engage in conversations with other men for at least 15 minutes on topics related to sports.
  • Women listen longer and are more engaged in discussions with friends.
  • It’s difficult to get a man’s attention when he’s watching sports, channel-surfing or engaged with a digital device.
  • 55 percent of women test their partners’ listening skills.
  • Over 50 percent of men confessed they were not good listeners.

Researchers also noted that men have selective listening when discussing certain topics, such as their spouses’ or partners’ feelings or work problems, fashion/shopping, news about celebrities or reality stars, Facebook posts or diet/nutrition.

Study participants also identified common signs that reflect selective listening:

  • Delayed responses to questions asked
  • Blank or confused expressions
  • Singular focus on a digital device or TV

Hearing in a noisy situation
Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco were intrigued with the longstanding mystery of how people can clearly listen to a speaker in a noisy environment. It’s called the cocktail party effect, but can occur in any situation like a loud sports venue, busy restaurant or noisy airport.

To understand how this occurs, scientists studied the brain activity of three patients undergoing brain surgery for epilepsy. Doctor’s placed a sheet of electrodes on the brain’s outer surface, called the cortex, and tracked each patient’s brain activity for a week. Using a decoding algorithm, researchers detected how the brain processes sounds and conversations. They discovered that the cocktail party effect occurs when people have a specific thing they want to discuss or learn about. Their brain is able to tune out other noises and zero in on a specific conversation.


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