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5.1.6: Auditory Attention

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    More than 50 years ago, experimental psychologists began documenting the many ways that our perception of the world is limited, not by our eyes and ears, but by our minds. We appear able to process only one stream of information at a time, effectively filtering other information from awareness. To a large extent, we perceive only that which receives the focus of our cognitive efforts: our attention.

    Figure 10. Some researchers contend that there really is no such thing as multi-tasking. Instead, people are just rapidly switching their attention between tasks, rather than holding those tasks in their attention at the same time. [Image: Mike Licht,, CC BY 2.0,]

    Imagine the following task, known as dichotic listening: You put on a set of headphones that play two completely different speech streams, one to your left ear and one to your right ear.

    Your task is to repeat each syllable spoken into your left ear as quickly and accurately as possible, mimicking each sound as you hear it. When performing this attention-demanding task, you won’t notice if the speaker in your right ear switches to a different language or is replaced by a different speaker with a similar voice. You won’t notice if the content of their speech becomes nonsensical. In effect, you are deaf to the substance of the ignored speech. But, that is not because of the limits of your auditory senses. It is a form of cognitive deafness, due to the nature of focused, selective attention. Even if the speaker on your right headphone says your name, you will notice it only about one-third of the time (Conway, Cowan, & Bunting, 2001).

    And, at least by some accounts, you only notice it that often because you still devote some of your limited attention to the ignored speech stream (Holendar, 1986). In this task, you will tend to notice only large physical changes (e.g., a switch from a male to a female speaker), but not substantive ones, except in rare cases.

    This selective listening task highlights the power of attention to filter extraneous information from awareness while letting in only those elements of our world that we want to hear.

    Focused attention is crucial to our powers of observation, making it possible for us to zero in on what we want to see or hear while filtering out irrelevant distractions. But, it has consequences as well: We can miss what would otherwise be obvious and important signals.

    Criteria for Automaticity:

    Interactive Element

    MIT has published a video lecture that explains Automaticity. The video will begin playing at 30 minutes, watch till 37:08 to understand the criteria for automaticity.

    This page titled 5.1.6: Auditory Attention is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mehgan Andrade and Neil Walker.