Selective What?

So we’ve all heard of selective hearing, it’s the process whereby we listen in to things depending on whether we want to or not. I often remember being told by my mum that I only listened to things I wanted to hear and never when I was asked to do jobs around the house… (surprise surprise!) But is this actually a real thing?

Well in short yes, it is and is also known by some as the ‘Cocktail Party Effect‘ which is where we selectively pick out and listen in on the conversations we want to hear amongst a general background noise of many conversations. When I read about this, it reminded me of a story we were told at school in assembly once, which went something like this…

There were once two guys walking down the road together, trying to hear themselves and have a conversation over the noise of the cars going past. Then one of them stopped, turned to the other and said “Can you hear that grasshopper?”. “Of course I can’t! That’s crazy, you can’t hear that” replied the second man, “It’s far too noisy to hear something so quiet!” However, the first man knew he was right and replied “No, I did hear it and I bet you could hear it as well if you wanted, you just don’t want to”.

At this he pulled a small coin out of his pocket and dropped it onto the pavement below; as he did so several people around them stopped and looked down as if to check if it was them who had dropped their money. “See” said the first man, “They can all hear the coin, just like I can hear the grasshopper, the only difference is what we’re listening out for”.

This, although a very basic idea of what I’m talking about, does represent the theory quite well. The effect is something that is of particular interest to neuroscientists and also in the realm of psychoacoustics. It is linked to the brain’s capability to focus on particular information that it is interested in or can relate to (i.e. when you hear someone mention the name of the town you’re from). Studies have now been done in audio signal processing to create a program that can separate out different signals from a general noise (e.g. separating a piece of music from a signal that has talking over the top of it). This helps us to work  out how the brain works and also may have the potential to be used for security and data analysis in the further.

Coffee Shop

Because of this effect, people often find it hard to work when conversations are going on around them, which could be part of the reason why coffee shop noise is considered by many to be good for creativity. Background noise for many, is useful as it is so common now in our everyday life that a lack of it can often seem unnatural. With careful acoustic design through sound diffusion and by using large volume spaces (i.e. high ceilings) sound in these places can easily be dispersed giving a general background noise but where individual conversations are hard to pick out. Nowadays, as open plan offices are becoming more and more common, this knowledge is becoming more and more vital in order to create a creative and calm working atmosphere.

Where do you find it best to work, do you like the idea of open plan offices/coffee shops or do you work best with complete silence? Have a listen to Coffitivty and see if you find it easier to work to!


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