You’re walking down the street, completely immersed in texting the perfect message, when a bicyclist chimes his bell and you barely avoid colliding with his bike. Or, you’re completely engrossed in your book on the train and, next thing you know, you realize your stop was three stations ago. These instances might make you feel like a bonehead when they happen, but there’s more at play here than just run-of-the-mill inattentiveness. A new study by researchers at the University College London shows that concentrating on a single visual task may render you completely deaf to sounds at normal levels.
Published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the study found that brain scans of a group of individuals fixated on a somewhat challenging visual task showed a greatly decreased response to sounds, suggesting the hearing and vision senses share a limited brain resource. That means that when both visual and hearing centers need some brain power, your brain has to choose which one to focus on. Once your brain is concentrated on demanding visual stimuli, you don’t just ignore sound cues — you actually lose your ability to hear them at all.
The phenomenon is called “inattentional deafness,” and researchers say it’s an incredibly common occurrence, especially with the onslaught of personal gadgets that steal our visual focus away at every turn. If you’ve ever been frustrated with the lack of response you get from a friend staring at their phone, they’re not filtering you out on purpose; they simply might not hear you. Inattentional deafness has serious implications beyond your pal ignoring you — you can wander into traffic, get lost or miss the sound of your keys falling out of your pocket.
But don’t panic! The important thing is to remain mindful of your brain’s resources and put away your phone or other visual distractions whenever you need to be especially aware of the sounds around you.
Do you think this is bad news for your attempts at multi-tasking? Tweet us your thoughts @BritandCo!
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