You’re probably familiar with the phrase “selective hearing” in reference to people only hearing what they want to hear. While it’s often used in a joking sense, selective hearing is an experience that researchers are only just starting to understand.

Selective hearing is the ability to listen to a single speaker while in a crowded or loud environment. You might also hear it referred to as “selective auditory attention” or the “cocktail party effect.”

Selective hearing involves many factors, including your goals, vision, and brain activity patterns.

Goals

Your brain chooses what to listen to based on what you’re trying to do.

For example, imagine that someone started talking to you while you were trying to finish watching an episode of a TV show. Chances are good that you didn’t hear much of what they said to you. Your brain prioritized the sound of the TV over that person’s voice because your goal was to finish watching the show.

A 2008 study put this concept to the test by asking participants to pay attention to sounds in one ear but not in the other. The investigators then played different pitches in each ear at the same time and asked the participants to note any changes in pitch in the ear they were asked to focus on.

MRI scans of the participants’ brains showed that they heard the sounds in each ear. However, when they were detecting changes in the specified ear, they ignored the sound in the other ear.

Vision

Visual cues are also an important part of selective hearing.

For example, a 2013 study involved playing audio of a man and woman talking at the same time. Participants were asked to pay attention to either the female or the male speaker. They had a much easier time focusing on only the male or the female voice when watching a video of the speakers along with the audio.

Based on these results, being able to see someone while they’re talking might help you listen more effectively.

Brain activity

A 2012 study found that the presentation of sounds within your brain doesn’t reflect all of the sounds in your environment but, rather, what you want or need to hear. These results are similar to those of the 2008 study discussed above.

However, the investigators also found that they could use the patterns of brain activity they observed to predict which speaker or words someone was listening to.

Investigators used about 90 electrodes per person to monitor the brain activity of people undergoing surgery for epilepsy.

Participants were asked to listen to two different samples of speech at the same time. Each sample contained a different speaker and phrase. They were then asked to pick out which words were said by one of the two speakers.

Using information about brain activity patterns from the electrodes as well as a decoding process, the investigators reconstructed what the participants heard. The brain activity patterns suggested that the participants only paid attention to the speaker they were asked to focus on.

In addition, the investigators were able to use these brain activity patterns to predict which speaker the participant listened to and determine whether they paid attention to the wrong speaker at any point.

While the recent research surrounding selective hearing is interesting, it also has several real-world applications.

The predictive and decoding technology from the 2012 study discussed above may help researchers better understand the effects of aging and certain conditions on hearing function.

In addition, people with hearing loss, ADHD, auditory processing deficits, and autism seem to have trouble with selective hearing. The decoding technology could help researchers understand what people with these conditions are actually hearing and processing.

Knowing this information could be crucial for developing new treatments.

Some people seek out treatment for selective hearing. However, it’s a phenomenon that affects nearly everyone. There are a few things you can do to improve your listening skills, such as:

  • Pay attention. When you’re talking to someone, try to pay attention to more than just their words. Try to take in visual cues from their facial expressions or body language while they’re talking.
  • Summarize. At the end of a conversation, try briefly summarizing the main points to make sure you clearly understood everything.
  • Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask the other person a question about something they’ve said that’s unclear. Taking a few seconds to ask them to elaborate is usually less bothersome than a potential misunderstanding down the line.
  • Mind your own biases. While it’s easier said than done, try to be aware of your own biases and judgments about people when you’re talking to them. Preconceived notions can impact the way your brain processes a conversation.

Selective hearing is your ability to focus on and single out a particular sound or conversation.

While recent studies have uncovered new information about how selective hearing works, more studies are needed to fully understand why it happens and what it could mean for certain health conditions that affect hearing.