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Selective Hearing

Selective hearing is the ability to listen to a single speaker while in a crowded or loud environment. You have probably heard the phrase in a joking manner referring to a person who seems to hear only what they want to hear when they want to hear it. The truth is, real selective hearing is just beginning to be studied and understood by researchers and audiologists. It seems to often be found in people who struggle with hearing loss, have ADHD, or are autistic. The rest of this article will focus on what selective hearing is, how this type of trouble hearing may be dealt with, and a few specific ways to learn how to listen better.

How the Brain Processes Sensory Information

Your ears are constantly picking up sounds around you, even if you are not actively listening to something, your ears can pick it up. At the same time, your brain is constantly working to interpret stimuli that enter through sound, sight, touch, taste, and smell. Studies have shown that the sounds that enter into your brain do not reflect the totality of the sound in your environment, but rather what you need and want to hear.

Your auditory cortex is the part of your brain that processes what you hear. When you are trying to have a conversation or listen for a specific sound in the midst of other noises, your auditory cortex can focus and respond to only that sound. When there are a lot of different noises or particularly loud noises around you, you will notice that your auditory cortex will struggle to differentiate between sounds. While studies continue to show how selective hearing works and how important it is to overall hearing, more studies are needed to fully understand the topic.

How Does Selective Hearing Work?

Selective hearing is an interesting topic. It can help to explain why your children seem to ignore you until they hear words like “ice cream” or “pizza” and why your wife or husband seem to not hear words like “clean” or “help.” As we mentioned above, selective hearing refers to the phenomenon that a person is a lot better at hearing what they want to hear. It has very little to do with hearing loss or trouble hearing, and a lot more to do with the way your brain prioritizes sounds.

Multiple sounds enter our ears every single day. Many people wake up to an alarm clock, some families constantly leave their television on, dishwashers and washing machines run daily, and even birds chirping or cars running add to the noise and sounds that our ears bring in and our brains process. Even with all of these sounds, our brains are able to sort out and prioritize the sounds we want to hear. The traffic report on the radio, the weather forecast on television, or even your spouse telling you the schedule for the day. Selective hearing can actually help your brain recognize the information that is important and allow the important information to be noticed first.

Your brain handles sensory information automatically at lower levels, but then processes that sensory information, including sounds, when it needs to. Here is an explanation of those processes:

  • Filtering and Enhancing. Your brain filters all of the sounds that come in and then enhances the ones that you need to hear. For instance, when someone calls your name, your brain filters that out and alerts you to it.
  • Selective Perception. This is the brain’s ability to notice and more quickly forget stimuli that causes emotional discomfort.
  • Sensory Contrast. When your brain notices contrasting information more. For instance, when your child screams in a quiet church service it sounds a lot louder than when they speak at the same volume on the playground.
  • Prioritizing stimuli. This is the process in which your brain allows “normal” stimuli to pass unnoticed while abnormal stimuli is prioritized. For instance, when you have excess wax in your ear, you notice that you cannot hear your spouse speaking to you as well.

Selective hearing is the result of how your brain processes the stimuli brought in audibly. The process is necessary and can be helpful, but it can also hinder your ability to hear important things that you train your brain to ignore. The key is to continue learning how to be a better listener and to train your ears and your brain to hear the “right” important things.

How To Deal With Selective Hearing

Dealing with selective hearing in a loved one is an important aspect of their growth, especially for your children. Here are four keys to dealing with selective hearing and ensuring that the people you love enjoy the benefits of being a good listener:

  1. Make sure there is not a true hearing problem. A simple hearing test by an audiologist can help you decide if they are dealing with an underlying hearing issue that needs to be addressed.
  2. Get their attention before talking to them to make sure that they can hear what you are saying from the start. Say their name and make them turn to look at you. Turn off any loud noises or distractions and establish eye contact. Make sure their brain is ready to receive the communication.
  3. Make your communication short and to the point. If you want your kids to clean up their toys, say “cleanup your toys please”, do not use 1,000 words when 10 will do. Most adults will not sustain attention when the topic is boring to them, almost no child will.
  4. Be a model of what a good listener looks like and does. You can help to improve their listening skills by showing them how to do it, and not making the mistakes that they make.

How To Be A Better Listener

Selective listening is a skill that anyone can develop and improve, should they desire. In its essence, it is simply consciously or unconsciously choosing to listen to what is relevant to you and ignoring what is not. Here are some easy things you can do to improve your listening skills: 

  • Pay attention

Communication and listening is more than just hearing the words a person speaks. Nonverbal clues including facial expressions and body language, along with voice inflection and word choice, can all help make you a better listener. The more stimuli you take in, the easier it is for your brain to process what it needs to.

  • Summarize/paraphrase

When the conversation is over, try to subtly repeat what you discussed with the person to make sure you understood. This is not always appropriate, but when you want to make sure there are no communication errors, paraphrasing the conversation works well.

  • Ask questions

If someone says something that is unclear or you were unable to hear, ask them about it. It is better to take a few seconds to clarify or elaborate in the middle of the conversation than it is to try to remember later.

  • Mind your own biases

Try to be aware of the biases and judgements that you bring into every conversation. We all do it, and it is definitely easier said than done, but preconceived notions and ideas can affect the way you listen and understand a conversation.

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