Maybe you know people that when they check their smartphones or read an enticing book seem oblivious to anything around them. A recent study found that they are not doing it on purpose – their brain is so caught up in the visual task that it temporarily shuts down the hearing function.
So don’t take it personally if these people cease to know of your existence when they swipe on their smartphones. Researchers explained that the phenomenon stems from how the brain can cope with multitasking, when one of the tasks is very engaging.
The team found that the human brain uses the same brain areas to process visual and audio stimuli. So, if those areas are too busy processing visual stimuli, they become numb to other stimuli.
The research, which was published Dec. 8 in the Journal of Neuroscience, has even a name for the sudden loss of hearing: inattentional deafness.
Nilli Lavie, lead author of the study and brain science expert at University College London, in the U.K., explained that people who focus too hard on a visual task are not ignoring the people around them on purpose. Their brains choose to do so.
Study authors also found that the more engaging a visual task is the higher chances of a person to not hear what people are talking around them. This may explain why people reading in a subway often miss their stop: they simply do not hear it being announced.
Moreover, the mechanism may also explain why surgeons that need to concentrate on surgery need assistance with monitoring the beeps and audio signals of the medical equipment around them.
Lavie said that surgeons can become so caught into what they are doing that they may miss the audio alarms. This is why another person should concentrate on the audio stimuli instead.
But the research team long suspected that multitasking may fail to work when a visually-engaging task needs to be performed. So, they were curious to see what happens in the brain.
In their experiments, they asked 13 volunteers to look at a computer screen and tap a certain key when letters briefly appeared on the screen. They were also asked to wear headphones and pay attention to the sounds played.
In the meantime, the participants’ brain waves were measured. Researchers learned from the scans that when the visual task was not very complex, brain signals indicated that volunteers heard the sound; but when the visual tasks were too demanding, participants became virtually deaf for several moments.
Image Source: Flickr
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