The Sunday Magazine·The Sunday Edition

"Yes, It's a Thing" - Inattentional Deafness

There's a fine line between not listening and not hearing. A recent study shows the existence of a phenomenon called "inattentional deafness." It's what happens when people are so engrossed by what they're reading on their cell phones that they fall deaf to the real, live human being in the same room.
A woman uses a smartphone in New York City in this picture taken November 6, 2013. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Here on The Sunday Edition, we are exploring some of the strange things many of us experience without knowing what they are called — or if they are documented phenomena. We are calling our mini-series "Yes, It's a Thing," and on this week's instalment, we examine the fine line between not listening and not hearing. 

It's easy to assume that someone too engrossed in their cellphone to respond to the person sitting next to them is simply being rude, but a 2015 study conducted at University College London revealed the existence of a phenomenon called "inattentional deafness." 

Dr. Maria Chait was one of the researchers on this study. She also teaches auditory cognitive neuroscience at the Ear Institute of University College London. 

Chait says brain function, not ear function, is responsible for inattentional deafness. "There's a lot of 'brain' involved in hearing," she says. 

In the study, participants were given a task that required them to focus intensely on a screen — to mimic the experience of reading a book on the train or concentrating on a cellphone screen. 

"We were interested in what happens at that moment to sounds that are presented simultaneously with the visual display, but are not task-relevant," says Chait. "We saw that brain responses to the sounds...were reduced when listeners were performing this hard visual task."

Chait says the study suggests humans are unable to multi-task in many circumstances — even though our physical environments and workplaces are often designed with the assumption that we can process multiple streams of information at once, and that doing so will make us more efficient. 

Click the button above to hear this week's instalment of "Yes, It's a Thing."


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