Selective hearing or cocktail party effect

Last update on Dec, 15, 2022

What is selective hearing?

Selective hearing, also known as the cocktail party effect, is the ability to distinguish, interpret and focus on one sound in particular in the presence of other sounds that 'compete' with it. Basically, it is what makes us able to follow a conversation while in a crowded restaurant. In these situations, our brain 'chooses' the sounds it is interested in, ignoring all the others that overlap and classifying them as background noise.

Why is it called the cocktail party effect?

The name 'cockail party effect' was coined by cognitivist Colin Cherry. This name is due to the situation in which selective hearing reaches its highest level of expression: at a party. In an environment where many conversations overlap, our particular ability to follow only one of them becomes clear. Cherry, interested in the phenomenon, conducted experiments during the 1950s in which he asked people to wear headphones from which two conversations could be heard simultaneously. He asked people to choose to listen to one of them and discovered that not only did they succeed perfectly, but that no trace remained in the memory of the second ignored conversation, even though the cerebral cortex had recorded it.

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How does selective hearing work?

The cocktail party effect is involuntary and is controlled by our ear, in particular by our tectorial membrane. This membrane is able to filter out sounds, letting through only those that interest us. The bad news is that, like all tissues, it weakens over time, making it more difficult to distinguish conversations in noisy, crowded environments as we age.

Selective hearing in children

Selective hearing is necessary to enable us to interact properly with the people around us. For this reason, children experience it in the same way as adults, unless they suffer from hearing loss. Particularly during the first years of growth, when the neural networks are developing, the 'pathways' in their brains are refined and it is important to intervene with hearing aids, where necessary, so as not to compromise the formation of very important neural connections.

Selective hearing according to gender

Selective hearing is not strictly related to a person’s biological gender. We can only assume that there is a difference in the propensity for tissue deterioration, which includes the tectorial membrane, which is fundamental in the ability to filter sounds. In fact, as is the case with hearing loss, men are more prone to hearing tissue damage. However, some studies speculate that this is not a factor related to particular brain functions or capacities: the causes lie in people’s lifestyles. While men tend to be more frequently exposed to traumatic hearing events, statistically women pay more attention to personal care and medical check-ups.

Selective hearing disorder or cocktail party effect

Selective hearing is not permanent. However, as we age, it tends to degenerate. As a result, it becomes increasingly difficult for older people to stay focused on listening to conversations in environments with loud background noise. This weakening is due to a decline in attention. 

That being said, if one is unable to follow a conversation because it is difficult to distinguish the speaker's voice, it could instead be a hearing loss instead of selective hearing. In which case, a hearing examination is recommended.

Selective hearing: hearing loss and hearing aids

The ability to concentrate on a single sound and dismiss the others as background noise is an effect that occurs when both ears work equally well. This means that if the loss of this ability occurs due to a hearing impairment, it can be compensated by using two hearing aids. In this case, it is particularly effective to have hearing aids that have technology that filter out background noise.

Is selective hearing a symptom of ADHD?

People with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) lack the ability to focus attention on a single sound. In noisy environments, where many conversations take place at the same time, or in places with background music, these individuals hear 'everything and nothing at the same time'. Attention deficit disorder is most common in children, but symptoms are also present among adults if not kept under control pharmacologically.
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How to train selective hearing

If you notice that the cocktail party impairment is due to a purely cognitive problem, you can train yourself to recover it. In fact, there are several cognitive exercises based on a neuropsychological model of attention that use repetitive and repeated patterns to stimulate attentional skills. Conversely, if you realise that your inability to follow conversations in crowded environments is due to a hearing impairment, the most effective solution is a hearing aid.

Selective hearing and music

A study published in the Ear and Hearing journal has confirmed that people who have studied music will retain their selective hearing ability better and for a longer period of time. This is due to greater development of the auditory working memory and is not related to the individual's level of musical training. Musicians or former musicians in particular are more likely to be able to distinguish a conversation from background noise in a particularly adverse context.

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