Selective Hearing

Jan 21, 2018 5:16 PM

We’ve all heard the old adage, “They only hear what they want to hear.” We make jokes about our friends and family having “selective hearing,” when they aren’t listening or we can’t get their attention, but is selective hearing a real thing? As it turns out, it is. However, it’s not a conscious choice but rather a high level cognitive function called Selective Auditory Attention. 

Selective Auditory Attention is the modern term for a theory first developed by a British cognitive science researcher named Edward Cherry in 1953. He termed it ‘The Cocktail Party Problem’.  It has to do with our ability to lock in on a particular voice amidst many. We all use this ability in varying degrees every day. All sounds consist of a combination of frequency (pitch) and amplitude (loudness). As sound travels from our ears to our brain it goes through an extensive filtering process, mainly in the auditory cortex. Currently it is thought that this filtering process has three main characteristics: segmentation, integration, and segregation. Segmentation sorts sound into priority, integration puts sound ‘in order’, and segregation sorts out the important information from the unimportant, or the signal from the noise as researchers state it.  It’s what allows us to understand our partner in a noisy restaurant. While our skill at doing this filtering varies from person to person, hearing loss, even mild hearing loss, decreases our ability to focus on a particular sound.  We all develop some hearing loss as we age.  As we lose our hearing, the clarity, or resolution of sounds in our environment decrease. Just as a loss in our vision makes sharp detail degrade into vague shapes, even a slight decrease in our hearing affects our ability to parse out sounds. As we lose our hearing, sound becomes ‘blurry’, and our skill at Selective Auditory Attention declines.

Hearing aids can help restore a persons ability to hear in background noise.  First, by reducing the ‘blurriness’ of sound and restoring some of the clarity back into your life. Secondly, modern hearing aids have varying levels of sophisticated background noise processing ability.  These technologies try to mimic the Selective Auditory Attention processes. “In my opinion speech in noise testing should be performed in all hearing evaluations” said Dan Rochel of Hearswell in Isanti.  “In the past decade, most of the R&D in the industry has been aimed at solving background noise issues, and the research has had tremendous impact in this area,” Rochel continued.  At Hearswell,  all hearing evaluations, and hearing instrument assessments are done using industry ‘best practices’. This includes the  speech in noise testing. 

If you’ve found that your hearing is losing it’s edge, or your current hearing specialist does not do Signal in Noise testing, give Hearswell a call to be sure you are getting the most up to date hearing health care.