I’m All Ears

You’ll want to pay attention to this – SO listen up!

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science and the science of LISTENING!

But you might be in a crowd right now! How does your brain focus on MY voice while ignoring other conversations around you?

Emily Teoh from the University of Dublin in Ireland wondered. 

Fourteen volunteers listened to two different stories at the same time. They were asked to pay attention to only ONE. Meanwhile, the researchers recorded and mapped their brains’ electrical activity.

Results? When we’re really paying attention to someone speaking, our brains take an EXTRA step. This step allows us to convert sounds into words we can understand! 

These sounds, called phonemes, are the SPECIFIC sounds that determine the difference between words. Examples? MaD versus MaT, or Cook versus Book. This is also how we can understand words spoken by different voices or accents.

When our minds wander from the speaker, words are just meaningless vibrations traveling through air.

And now… back to your carpool conversation. And you’re welcome!  

Reference: Teoh, E. S., Ahmed, F., & Lalor, E. C. (2021). Attention differentially affects acoustic and phonetic feature encoding in a multispeaker environment. The Journal of Neuroscience. https://doi.org/10.1523/jneurosci.1455-20.2021