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Machines Like Us

Falling on deaf ears

Saturday, 28 May 2011

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."

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 which takes relatively little concentration – only 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.