Senior man and young woman discussing 'what is selective hearing loss?'.

Selective Hearing: What It Is and How It Works

If you’ve ever experienced your child or partner ignoring you with a question about chores, but they seem to turn their attention to you immediately at the mention of their favorite snack or activity, you might have direct experience with selective hearing

Even for those who don’t know what selective hearing is, it’s likely everyone has experienced it at some point in their life. While the phrase “selective hearing” is often used jokingly in a negative way, some people’s brains unconsciously filter out information. 

How does selective hearing work?

Recent research that examined the auditory cortex, which processes sound in the brain, showed that brains can prioritize sounds. Even with multiple sounds and background noise, the brain can pick out different tones and frequencies. In situations where there is too much noise, your brain will have a harder time picking out different sounds. This is more likely to happen when two sounds that are similar blend together—such as two higher-pitched sounds—which your auditory cortex will struggle to differentiate. 

In the research study, the participants were asked to listen to two voices talking at the same time. When asked to only focus on one of the voices and repeat what they said, the data showed that they had only paid attention to the voice they were asked to, filtering out the other voice. While they were still able to hear the voice in the background, they didn’t actively listen to what was said. 

This is part of what sets us apart from new technology focused on voice recognition, as our brains can recognize and prioritize sounds when there is another noise that’s present. For example, if you heard two people talking, you would have the capability to focus on what one person was saying, but Siri would get confused. 

It’s important to remember that selective hearing might be more prominent in certain individuals. People who are autistic or struggle with ADHD or hearing loss are particularly prone to issues with selective hearing. 

How to manage and improve selective hearing

If you have a friend, family member, or child who zones out of the conversation, it can be frustrating to have to repeat yourself, especially if it happens on a regular basis. It’s important to remember that communication differs depending on the individual, and it’s worth it to make an effort for more effective communication.

Let’s take a look at some tips for managing selective hearing.

Understand the listener’s needs

This might include getting their attention before starting the conversation, speaking clearly, and allowing for pauses and questions in the conversation. It can be difficult for some individuals to pay attention to a long sentence, so allowing time for them to process the information or ask for clarification can improve your communication with them greatly. 

Practice good listening habits

If you are struggling with selective hearing, it’s possible to implement listening methods into your daily life to ensure you aren’t missing out. If you’re feeling frustrated with missing important details in a conversation, worry not—there are plenty of strategies to improve your hearing skills. This might include choosing your listening space, listening to one thing at a time, giving your full attention to the person speaking, and seeking out quieter spaces for conversations. 

Ensure hearing loss isn’t the issue

Make sure there truly isn’t a hearing problem. In children, middle ear fluid is a common cause of fluctuating hearing loss. In adults, a high-frequency hearing loss associated with aging will make it more difficult to understand speech. A simple hearing test by an audiologist, or an online hearing test, can determine if there are any underlying hearing problems that need to be addressed.

If this is something you’re worried about but you’re not quite sure if you need to see an audiologist yet, set up a free hearing consultation with one of Lexie’s Hearing experts to answer any questions you might have.

Image of post writer Marcellé Swanepoel.

Written by Marcellé Swanepoel

B. Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology



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