Tuning Out: How Visual Focus Can Affect Hearing

It’s an old stereotype, to be sure, but one that occasionally applies to us—though we may be embarrassed to admit it. The scene: Jane is sitting at the breakfast table, engrossed in a newspaper article, when her husband clears his throat loudly and says in an annoyed tone, “Well, yes or no? Have you been listening to me?” Jane hasn’t heard a thing.

Our mothers called it “selective hearing,” but new research suggests that there’s nothing selective about it. In a recent study, Nilli Lavie, a professor of psychology and brain sciences at University College London, identified a phenomenon she calls “inattentional deafness.” Dr. Lavie and her colleagues have shown that when our attention and focus are placed on a visual task, we tend to “turn down the volume,” tuning out the sounds around us.

In the study, 100 volunteers with normal hearing and vision performed computer tasks involving a series of shapes while wearing headphones. Some tasks were easy, such as noticing the colors of two crossed lines shown on the computer screen. Other tasks were more challenging and involved identifying subtle line-length differences. At certain points, a tone was played unexpectedly through the headphones. After the experiment was stopped, participants were asked if they had heard the sound.

When completing the easy task, only two in ten volunteers missed the tone. But when focusing on the more difficult task, eight in ten failed to hear it.

In the journal Attention, Perception And Psychophysics (May 25, 2011 online edition), Dr. Lavie says, “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.” The part of the brain responsible for interpreting sound may be registering a weaker signal because it’s busy with other tasks.

“Your perception of sounds depends not just on your sense of hearing but also on your ability to pay attention,” Dr. Lavie explains. “It’s the first time that we’ve shown that people are not able to detect an ordinary tone if they’re engaged in a task that demands full attention.”

Real-world examples show that inattentional deafness can have very serious consequences. It is well documented that a large number of car accidents are caused by driver inattention. When a driver is concentrating on a GPS map or even an advertisement on the side of passing bus, he or she may fail to hear important sounds such as a truck beeping as it backs up or a bicycle bell. For safety’s sake, it would seem, we may sometimes have to choose between looking and listening.

What do you think? Beyond simply “getting lost in a good book,” could Dr. Lavie’s research have implications for your clients? What about for individuals with attention problems such as ADHD? Leave a comment—PAR wants to hear from you! 

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