by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
March 1, 2016
A recent article (1) noted that people can’t use their eyes and ears well at the same time when they are intently concentrating watching one thing while listening to something else.
This article began,
Do you ever get accused of “not listening” because you’re glancing down at your phone?
It then went on to explain that when a person is concentrating on reading something on his cell phone, it causes him to become temporarily deaf to normal-volume sounds.
Researchers analyzed “the real-time brain activity of 13 volunteers as they completed visual tasks while sounds played in the background. As the tasks got harder, the brain’s response to sound was reduced.”
What was the result?
The brain scans showed that people were not only ignoring or filtering out the sounds, they were not actually hearing them in the first place…. These findings suggest that our vision and our hearing share limited resources in the brain, which is essentially forced to choose between processing info from our eyes or our ears. (1)
Our brains only have so much “horsepower” and if we use almost all of it on seeing, there is little left to process sound.
I’ve observed this over many decades. When we concentrate on reading something, we don’t pay attention to what we are hearing. We can’t. Our brains have run out of horsepower.
For example, if I am on the phone talking with a person and want to look up something they are asking about on my computer, when I focus on reading the information on my screen, I realize I don’t have a clue what they have just been telling me. I need to first listen to them, then have them remain silent while I search for the information they want.
Another reason for not being able to hear well when we are concentrating on reading something totally unrelated is that our brains do not multitask. Thus, you are either reading or listening—not both. You have to rapidly switch back and forth between the two. Even so, in the instances when you are reading, you are missing hearing things so you end up with many gaps in what the person was saying.
Thus, between running out of brain horsepower and trying to multitask, we typically don’t succeed at either reading or listening when trying to do both at the same time.
This is why when listening to beautiful classical music, some people shut their eyes so their brains can use all their resources to let them fully enjoy the music. I do that too myself since there is no visual aspect when listening to recorded music.
In the same manner, people with normal hearing, when they are really concentrating on hearing something under difficult listening conditions, often shut their eyes so they can hear better. (Instead of shutting their eyes, some just stare at something “blank” such as the ceiling or floor to get rid of any visual clutter that would reduce their hearing.) Just doing this frees up the visual horsepower which is then switched over to help them hear better.
That’s how hearing people’s ears and brains work.
Hard of hearing people’s brains work the same, but with a twist.
As a hard of hearing person, I always thought it asinine that hearing people would shut their eyes when they were straining to hear speech. This is because all my life I knew I needed both my eyes and my ears in order to make sense of what a person was saying when trying to hear under difficult listening conditions—which for me as a hard of hearing person is pretty much all the time.
When people are speaking, hard of hearing people like me need to see the person’s lips moving (for speechreading) while, at the same time, straining to pick up the sounds they are saying. The good news is that when we concentrate on the same message, our eyes and our ears work together synergistically to better let us hear (understand) what a person is saying.
And if we look away—say at our cell phones—we just plain don’t hear them anyway!
Those of us with severe hearing losses from birth instinctively know this, but people with normal hearing that lose their hearing later in life don’t. Thus, they can have a hard time breaking their habit of shutting their eyes in order to hear better.
This was brought home to me when I was taking a speechreading instructor’s training program. Some of us in the class were hard of hearing from birth, and some had lost hearing later in life, like the man sitting beside me.
At one point the instructor was mouthing words silently or with a very low voice to see how well we could speechread her—and there was the man beside me, hands cupped under his chin as he stared intently at the floor straining to “hear”! Needless to say, he missed the whole exercise.
(1) Reliford, Alexis. February 20, 2016. The weird way looking at your phone can mess with your hearing. Fox News. http://www.foxnews.com/health/2016/02/20/weird-way-looking-at-your-phone-can-mess-with-your-hearing.html.