Hearing Tips

What You Should Know About the Cocktail Party Effect and Hearing Loss

Whether you’ve been at a restaurant with loud music or a house party with multiple conversations going on around you, it's often difficult to focus on what one person is saying while tuning out other dialogue or noise. The way our minds try to hone in on a specific conversation in louder environments is known as the cocktail party effect.

Blended Audio, Blended Drinks

Your brain chooses what to listen to and what to ignore. The phenomenon known as “the cocktail party effect” is the ability to focus on one source of sound even though there may be many sources around. Even in a social mix, full of blended sounds, music, and background noise - your brain is smart enough to make sense of auditory stimuli - and even focus on a single conversation.

The cocktail party effect goes both ways. We can use it to tune out noise, but also tune into noise when something important happens.

How Working Memory Affects Hearing

Your working memory is limited, so the brain has to choose what to listen to and what to ignore. For instance, you may “tune in” to a conversation with a good friend, but gradually “tune out” of the conversation if it gets boring. Similarly, even if you are super engaged in a face-to-face conversation, you are likely to register someone calling your name in the in the background.

Concentration and Hearing

How many times have you heard someone say: “Don’t talk to me right now, I need to focus.”

The speaker needs all their brain power to focus on a specific task; they are irritated at you because you are essentially robbing them of focus.

Or how about this example. Ever get closer to your destination as you are driving and you turn off the music?

Your working memory needs to reduce the auditory stimulation, so you turn off the music. At the same time, your memory is trying to make sense of a new geographical area. So you turn off the music so you can focus better. Studies have confirmed that turning off the radio when lost helps you gain a better sense of direction.

How does our brain decide what to tune in and what to tune out?

The brain is remarkable in its plasticity. The human brain can always be taught new tricks!

Researchers from the University of Tokyo investigated the cocktail party effect in detail. In this 2015 study, researchers found that individual neurons learn to “tune in” to one input while ignoring others, offering an intriguing explanation for how rapid neural plasticity may give rise to the cocktail party effect.

The researchers built on the work by British electronic engineer and cognitive scientist Edward Cherry, the first to study the cocktail party phenomenon. While attending Imperial College in London in 1953, Cherry conducted experiments to determine how well subjects deciphered blended conversations. He determined that participants are able to easily interpret messages (both in the foreground and the foreground), and even shift their attention from one conversation to another.

What’s more, this intelligence can be trained. Air traffic controllers, professional musicians, and other individuals who train their hearing on a regular basis are easily able to shift their attention from one conversation to another.

Over sixty years later, Cherry’s findings still inspire researchers today. From learning how computer games help your hearing to examining cognitive decline and hearing loss, the cocktail party effect has massively contributed to new research. Sip on that!

Cocktail Party Effect Overwhelming? See an Audiologist

You might be too young to buy a cocktail, but you’re never too old to do something about your hearing loss. The first step is to see a professional.

Say What Hearing has a network of audiologists, ENTs, hearing specialists, and doctors throughout the United States. Give us a call or provide us with your email to see if you qualify for a free hearing screening at an audiologist clinic in your area.

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