Selective Hearing or Acoustic Distraction

Of all the human senses, the sense of hearing may be the most autonomous, the least controllable. After all, we can shut our eyes to sights we do not want to see. We can hold our breath, at least for a while, to block noxious odors. We can even recoil from the sensation of touch. But, short of walking around with ear plugs or our palms planted firmly over our ears, we can’t really turn off the sense of hearing.

Selective Hearing or Acoustic Distraction

That doesn’t mean, though, that we’re entirely powerless against the sounds that surround us. Indeed, our bodies house some pretty sophisticated machinery for helping us to hear what we want to hear–and to shut out what we don’t. Yes, selective hearing is a real thing, and it often occurs without your even realizing it. But what is selective hearing, exactly, how does it work, what does it do for us, and what about when it doesn't work as it should?

Selective Hearing

Although there are some important overlaps, the mechanisms and the functions of selective hearing differ in significant ways from hearing filters and other auditory processing systems. For example, while auditory processing is principally a physiological occurrence, selective hearing results from the interplay of an array of factors, including the psychological, the motivational, and even the visual.

In other words, selective hearing illuminates the reality that what we hear isn’t just determined by the environmental noises that encompass us. Rather, what we hear is often based largely on what we want to hear.

Selective Hearing, ASD, ADHD, and Sensory Processing

To be sure, selective hearing processes are informed largely by our feelings and our goals, but that does not mean that we have complete control over what we “select” to hear. This is particularly true for persons with neurocognitive disorders. In a study of “listening difficulties” among school-aged children, Dillon and Cameron (2021) have found that children experiencing difficulties in speech, learning, or behavior are often encountering an array of challenges relating to focused hearing, speech differentiation, noise filtering, attention, and memory (1).

In other words, these children are unable to engage in healthy selective hearing processes. Such obstacles may relate to a host of neurocognitive conditions, from autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to sensory processing disorder. A growing body of evidence suggests, for example, that multisensory processing disorders may well be a distinguishing feature of the autism spectrum (2, 3, 4).

For persons who are neurodivergent, such as those who have sensory processing disorders or those on the autism spectrum, sensory stimuli don’t always help to organize, understand, and experience the world. All too often, auditory, visual, and tactile input can become an overwhelming, disorienting, and disturbing chaos of sensations. In such situations, selective hearing processes often rapidly shut down, and the person is subsumed by a sea of noise. This is an example of the critical importance of environmental sound mitigation. Whether in the healthcare, academic, or residential setting, noise reduction efforts can help neurodivergent persons be more comfortable, productive, and highly functioning, enabling them to enjoy a higher quality of life overall.

A Baby’s Cry

Perhaps the most significant illustration of the reality of both hearing filters (physiology) and selective hearing can be found in humans’ responses to infants’ cries. Research studies demonstrating the exceptional capacity of adult humans, and particularly women, to recognize and automatically respond to the sound of a crying baby are plentiful (5, 6, 7). These studies also indicate that important differences exist between men and women and between parents and nonparents in the capacity to recognize an infant’s cry, to differentiate their own child’s cry from the cries of another child, and to react in a positive manner (i.e. by picking up, feeding, or otherwise soothing) manner to the infant’s cry (6, 7, 8). Research into gender differences in infant cry responses has found that women are more likely than men to awaken from sleep or to experience disruptions in their train of thought when a child begins to cry.

While the consistency with which differences in gender and parental status impact a person’s recognition of and response to an infant’s cries might seem to indicate purely biological mechanisms at work, some confounding evidence has also emerged. There is, indeed, substantial evidence that speaks to the role that psychological and motivational factors play in determining what, exactly, it is that we hear in the world around us.

For example, in a study of young adults’ responses to infant cries, Kim et al. (2015) found that young persons who had been reared in poverty were less likely than the general population in the same age cohort to respond positively to a newborn’s cries and were more likely to feel annoyed and, therefore, less inclined to respond with caregiving to the child (9).

Life experiences don’t just seem to shape what you hear and how you respond, but they may also inform how well we hear. Again, infant cry research is telling here. For instance, in a study of infant cry recognition and response in mothers who had previously received infertility treatment, Sampei and Fujiwara (2020) found that women who had been treated for infertility reported a higher frequency of crying than did new mothers who had not received infertility treatment (10). This suggests an amplified sensitivity to the sounds of their crying child, a sensitivity that cannot be explained purely by physiology but that probably has deep roots in emotion, experience, and motivation (i.e. in the domain of psychology).

In other words, selective hearing has a great deal to do with your life experiences, how you feel, what you want, and what you’re trying to do. If one is young and poor and trying to figure out how to buy food for the week, they may not hear their child’s cries at all. If they have maltreatment in their own childhood or if their own distress cries had gone neglected or unheard, the same negative selective hearing response may occur with their own children (11). On the other hand, if you have had to struggle to conceive a child, if your capacity to ever become a parent has been in doubt, then the research suggests that you are likely to be particularly alert and responsive to your child’s cries.

The Eyes (and the Ears) Have It

As important a role as emotions, experience, and motivation all play in selective hearing, these are not the only factors at work. Indeed, when it comes to determining what and how you hear, your eyes may be every bit as important as your ears. In fact, the connection between vision and hearing seems to be so profound that researchers and clinicians in the field of audiology are developing technologies to integrate visual cues into hearing technologies for persons with and without hearing loss (12, 13, 14).

Specifically, researchers have found that hearing aids that incorporate eye gaze technologies provide significant benefit to typically hearing and hard of hearing persons in regard to speech recognition and voice differentiation in crowded, noisy environments with multiple, overlapping, and simultaneous conversations occurring. The benefits persisted even when the speaking subject was in motion, provided that the hearer was able to visually track the speaker, even in low light conditions.

In essence, even the most minute and subtle of visual cues will affect what and how we hear because the world around us is not fixed. Rather, it is the construction of our consciousness, and that derives from the interaction of our physiology, our psychology, our life histories, and our senses.

However, because it is not always possible to effectively visually track the source of the sound you are trying to selectively hear, persons who are hard of hearing do not always benefit from the nexus between hearing and sight. Once again, this is why the listening environment is so critical. Particularly in conditions of overlapping sound, persons with hearing loss can find it difficult or impossible to filter out background noise and gain sound clarity from the subject at which they’re directing their attention.

The good news, though, is that it’s possible to mitigate the effects of what researchers term the “cocktail party effect” through environmental noise mitigation, such as the use of noise reduction wall panels and ceiling tiles. As acoustic reverberations are absorbed and minimized, those with hearing challenges will be better able to fix their attention to the sources of the sounds they want to hear.

This is true even where visual tracking isn’t feasible. In crowded office environments where multiple conversations are often occurring at once, for example, environmental sound mitigation can mean all the difference for employees, clients, and stakeholders with hearing challenges.

How FSorb Can Help

At FSorb, our innovative line of eco-friendly acoustic products can help you design the ideal sound environment to meet every need. Our custom panels are optimal for facilitating noise mitigation in schools, daycare centers, healthcare facilities, and office environments, spaces where the capacity to listen and hear what matters most is of the utmost importance. We offer products for those who seek to construct a quiet haven to incorporate a bit of peace and quiet in their lives. Contact your local F-Sorb representative today to discuss how our state-of-the-art technologies can help you meet and exceed your clients’ sound mitigation needs.



At FSorb, we are motivated by improving human health and do so by creating eco-friendly acoustic products. Our mission is to help designers build beautiful spaces that reduce excess ambient noise while calming the human nervous system. With over 25 years in the acoustic business we stand behind FSorb as a durable, environmentally friendly, and low-cost product. If you want an acoustic solution that is safe to human health at an affordable price, then we are your resource.

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