The cocktail party effect gets new research

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I’ve always been fascinated by “the cocktail party effect.” It’s what lets you focus on what the person in front of you is saying, even when you’re in a busy room. Recent research indicates that a person with ADHD has a much harder time differentiating the speaker they want to pay attention to from the rest of the crowd. Further research in to this may help prove that these kids aren’t hyperactive, or amped up on too much sugar; they don’t need medication to slow them down, but their brains are wired wrong for selective hearing. Finding the proper treatment for that is going to do much more for kids than doping them up!

I’ve always been interested in the cocktail party effect because I remember as a little kid sitting in the back seat of my parents’ mini van while we were heading out of town. My grandparents were in the car… my dad and grandfather would talk, my mom and grandmother would talk, and I sat in the way back and played my Gameboy. But I was always fascinated that they could understand each other through all the noise. As I grew older, I realized that if you were paying attention to one person, you may not even realize the other people around you are even talking. Then I worked on another skill. Listening without watching.

The study shows that it is easier to focus on what a person is saying when you can look at them. To test this, they played a video of two people talking at the same time (a very short clip of this video can be seen on NPR’s website). The video allows you to focus on one of the two speakers, and then tell someone that person’s story. But if you try to focus on the male speaker, while listening to the female speaker, it is possible, but it’s much harder. You, essentially, must force yourself to be distracted by what someone is saying, rather than giving your undivided attention to someone who is speaking directly to you.

This is how we master the art of eavesdropping. There’s eavesdropping, and then there’s expertly hearing what is going on around you. I actually consider myself fairly well skilled in my ability to hear multiple conversations at one time. Multitasking is key, and I think researchers in the future will begin to see a pattern developing that generations who grew up with this constant need for stimulation are better at having their brains taxed with tasks like this. I was able to pick apart both conversations when I heard them together, and I do this every day in my job.

I’ve been called “Radar,” an homage to the M*A*S*H character who often knew what others would say before they said it and knew when medical choppers were incoming before anybody else. I’ve been asked if I have eyes in the back of my head, but really I just have a skill that I can’t turn off. It’s by no means flawless, but I’ve always been quite happy with this sense that I am plugged in to what’s going on around me, even as I walk through a crowded mall. Whenever new research comes out on the cocktail party effect, I love reading up on the latest things uncovered.

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