6.6 What Is Selective Auditory Attention?
Although nothing is ever universal, at some point during your childhood you have probably had an adult accuse you of selective hearing. A mother, for example, is constantly asking her children if they’ve ‘tuned her out’, or maybe they’re only half listening to what she’s saying to them. When people say things like this, they are likely trying to emphasize that you’re not listening to them, but it is indeed possible to only ever hear part of what a person is saying.
This ‘tuning out’ of sounds or words is what is known as selective auditory attention, and it is an important part of our brain’s function. Unlike when we are accused of simply not listening, selective auditory attention is often an unconscious process that takes over when you’re trying to focus on a sound or a person’s words. For example, if you’re having a conversation with another person, it is likely that you have chosen to focus on her words, at which point your brain starts to block out other sounds.
Because human beings are almost always being bombarded with images, sounds, and experiences through much of their daily lives, it is impossible for our brains to adequately process and make sense of every bit of these things. Instead, you and your brain tend to work together to decide which of these sensory experiences will be processed and what will be left out.
Theories of Selective Auditory Attention
In the early 1950s, cognitive scientist Colin Cherry first began researching what he referred to as the cocktail party problem. Cherry wondered how it was that people could have private or individual conversations amidst a large group of people who were all talking at the same time. As a result of his research, Cherry came to conclusion that the body’s auditory system was capable of filtering out other sounds in order to actively focus on one conversation. Out of this initial research, Cherry and other scientists began to delve deeper into how the brain receives, organizes, and processes auditory information.
One of the more interesting aspects of selective auditory attention discovered during these early years of research is the ways in which our brains rapidly put sounds together in order to produce a useful interpretation. In Broadbent’s filter model, for example, scientist Donald Broadbent expanded on Cherry’s research and concluded that the brain processes information in stages, ultimately blocking out unnecessary sound. If you were in a crowded and noisy subway car, for example, you would have to pay very close attention to what the person next to you is saying. Broadbent’s filter model suggests that at some point in the receiving process, your brain would block out unnecessary information and allow in only the information that it has deemed important.
Although selective auditory attention is an unavoidable neurological process, researchers have begun to notice some of the ways that it can negatively influence a person or culture. One such problem is something that scientists refer to as confirmation bias, which is when selective attention is used to produce a desirable interpretation of a message that validates a person’s beliefs.
For example, if a news story reported statistics suggesting that minority communities are disproportionately affected by violent crime, it is safe to assume that the study is complicated and involves several different factors. For a person with strong beliefs in white supremacy, however, it is possible that in hearing the story, selective auditory attention would prevent him from hearing those complicated factors, and results in hearing only the information that confirms his beliefs about racial minorities.
Confirmation bias is not always quite so dramatic, but this example should emphasize the potential dangers of selective hearing, which cannot always be trusted as a factual interpretation of an experience or event. This also highlights one of the more recent developments in research, which suggests that selective auditory attention is very often slanted towards a potential reward or positive outcome. For example, if a parent tells her teenager that he or she can use the car this weekend only after she completes all of her homework, selective auditory attention, which is reward oriented, might only hear the part about being able to use the car over the weekend and filter out the part about the homework.
Selective auditory attention is the process through which your brain filters out non-essential sounds and allows you to focus on the sounds to which you are paying attention. For example, if you were trying to have a conversation in a crowded restaurant, your brain might use selective auditory attention to filter out other noise and allow you to hear what the other person is saying. Theories about this concept began to emerge during the early 1950s, particularly in cognitive scientist Colin Cherry’s cocktail party problem. In the years that followed, Cherry’s pioneering work was expanded upon by Donald Broadbent, primarily in the Broadbent filter model for attention.
Though selective auditory attention is very much a natural function of the brain, researchers have begun to question the ways that it can negatively affect people’s lives. In some cases, confirmation bias produces an interpretation of sensory experience that only validates a person’s own beliefs, while the brain’s tendency to be reward oriented might block out other information and focus only on the reward.