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.
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.
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.
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.
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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