Have you ever tried to get an answer from someone deeply immersed in their video game? Parents can attest that kids seem to be deaf to anything going on around them if they are especially focused on that final battle. Don’t worry, your child isn’t being rude, and he has science on his side.
A new UCL study whose results were published in the Journal of Neuroscience finally proved this phenomenon is real, arguing that extreme visual focus can make people oblivious to background noise, be it speech or other sounds.
Hard concentration on a visual object can switch off the surrounding noise, creating a temporary bubble of deafness. This hypothesis was tested on 13 volunteers, who had their brain scanned during an activity that got them absorbed in visual stimuli.
It was previously known that the sight sense and the sound sense have a common neural source, and the brain scans showed that during these activities, the volunteers’ auricular sense was significantly reduced. Given tasks that required high amounts of concentration, the subjects became completely oblivious to any background noise, which seemed to melt into thin air.
It was surprising to see this was the case even for loud and noisy sounds – not at all inaudible. Even shrills went unheard during extreme concentration.
According to study co-author Dr Maria Chait of the UCL Ear Institute, it was interesting to see that the volunteers weren’t filtering out the sounds or ignoring them, but they simply didn’t hear them in the first place. It was a very weird phenomenon to see that even though it was impossible for the sounds to go unheard, the subjects were so focused they completely zoned out.
Also known as inattentional deafness, this phenomenon occurs more often than we realize. Being busy elsewhere actually causes us to ignore some sounds, which can have serious implications.
Think about a surgeon in the operating theatre; his concentrating on sewing up the sutures could block out the sound of the equipment beeping. Or think about drivers focusing on entering an address in the satnav; or a pedestrian engaging with their phone, who can go innattentionally deaf for a moment and not hear a car engine.
Louder sounds – such as sirens or horns – usually get through even when we’re particularly focused on texting and walking or on looking at an interesting advert, but there are other sounds in traffic that could go unnoticed and cause some real trouble.
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