Why are people with selective hearing often misunderstood?

Most people use the term selective hearing or listening as a negative, implying that a person only hears what they feel like. So in that sense, accusing someone of having selective hearing can be especially harsh and even offensive. But the reality is, what appears to be a blatant sign of disrespect, may have innocent explanations. 

It turns out, some people who appear only to hear what they want to hear may have a legitimate justification for doing so. Thanks to increased scientific attention paid to the selectivity of the auditory system over the past few years, today, we know more about what selective hearing is and how it works.

What exactly is selective hearing?

If you have selective hearing, also called selective auditory attention, you can listen to a single speaker in a noisy environment. Essentially, when you focus on a single person while in a crowded or loud environment, you "tune out" other speakers, words, or sounds. This 'tuning out' of sounds is an integral part of our brain's function. 

You see, unlike when you purposely decide to ignore someone, selective auditory attention is usually an unconscious process that kicks in when trying to focus on a sound or a specific speaker's words. A perfect example of this phenomenon is when you are in a deep conversation with someone, focusing on that person so much that your brain begins to block out other people or sounds. 
We are constantly bombarded with images, sounds, and information as human beings. To ease the burden on our brain and avoid overload, selective hearing allows us to choose which sensory experience to process at any given moment and which one to leave out.  

How does selective hearing work?

When you focus your attention on a specific source of a sound or speech, you are looking at selective hearing in action. In other words, although your auditory system "hears" the surrounding noise in your environment, your brain processes only specific parts of the auditory information. Not surprisingly, the auditory attention is most frequently directed at things you are most interested in hearing. 

In a sense, selective hearing is a blessing and a defense mechanism to protect our brain from too many auditory stimuli. The brain simply cannot process all sensory information occurring in our environment simultaneously. Therefore, thanks to selective auditory attention, only the most important parts are processed thoroughly. 
As you can see, selective hearing is not a physiological disorder; instead, it is a capability of humans to block out sounds, noise, or speech that we deem less important at any given moment. It is the idea of disregarding certain things in the surrounding environment. 

How do we select the sound?

The next logical question about this phenomenon is how the sound selection happens. We know thus far that various factors affect which sounds we end up focusing on and which ones we ignore. For instance, sounds that are closer to us are easier to focus on. The number of competing auditory stimuli also plays a role. Obviously, it is easier to concentrate on a dialogue in an environment where few other conversations occur simultaneously.

Internal factors also affect the selection process. For example, if you are very interested in a topic, you will likely focus on it easily, even if the speaker is further away from you. Visual cues are also impactful. For example, focusing is much easier if you can see the speaker's lips moving.

How prevalent is selective hearing?

Scientists have not produced enough evidence yet to state the estimated number of people with selective hearing. However, despite the lack of available data, it is widely believed that more men than women have this capability. Some authors hypothesize that gender-specific differences explain why men perform better in studies assessing selective auditory attention.

Is selective hearing a hearing disorder?

There is no evidence of any psychological or physiological cause for selective hearing. Since there is no loss of hearing in the ears, selective auditory attention cannot be classified as a physiological hearing disorder.

When to see an audiologist?

If you are confident that all you are dealing with is selective auditory attention, there is no cause for concern. However, if you suspect that your symptoms may be due to hearing loss (such as sensorineural), you should make an appointment with a hearing professional and get a hearing test done. 

A knowledgeable audiologist can determine if there is a cause for concern and if you suffer from hearing impairment. 
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only. You should not use the information as a substitute for, nor should it replace, professional medical advice. If you have any questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other health-care professional.