Do you get angry when you’re trying to talk to someone using their smartphone and they seem completely oblivious to what you’re saying? New research shows that those who are concentrating on a specific task may inadvertently go deaf to their surroundings, so don’t get too mad — your friend or loved one may have not even heard your voice.
The study comes out of University College London, which found that human brains can only handle so much information visual and audial intake. Much like a computer needs to allocate resources to perform intensive tasks, the brain sometimes needs to choose between processing one task or another. According to Nilli Lavie, one of the authors of the study, the reason for this is that both sight and sound processing comes from the same part of the brain: the association cortex.
Researchers asked two dozen participants to attempt certain visual tasks while audio tones played in the participant’s headphones. As the tasks increased in difficulty, the researchers monitored the participants’ brain activity.
When the task was easier we could see a brain signal indicating they could hear the tone. When it was difficult, we saw a reduced signal in the auditory cortex.
The findings indicate that during more complex tasks, people become less aware of the sounds around them — or do not hear them at all. The inability for humans to multitask in this manner explains why surgeons in the midst of an operation need an assistant to keep track of the sound alerts from their monitoring equipment. It also explains why people may seem to be ignoring you while sending a text or checking Twitter on their phone.
A plethora of other situations could cause inattentional deafness as well. According to Lavie, it doesn’t matter if your ears are working if your brain isn’t able to process new information.
In order to hear, we don’t just need our ears to be operating; we need our brain to respond to the sound. If our brain doesn’t respond because our attention is fully taken by another task, then we experience deafness.
The study comes just two months after researchers polled people on the effects of phubbing — or phone snubbing — on their relationships, in which a statistically significant number of people reported unhappiness in their relationship when their partner spent time on their phone while together.