UCL’s new study, which was funded by Wellcome Trust, was music to my ears. Why? Because after years of struggling to explain to my mother why I simply could no longer hear her once Sex and the City came on, I finally have an excuse.
What makes you deaf: The study has shown that concentrating really hard on a visual task can actually make people deaf for just a little bit of time. Sounds at normal levels can no longer be heard. The study, which can be found in the Journal of Neuroscience, explains that vision and hearing rely on limited neural resources – ones that they actually share.
When the respondents of the study were given demanding visual tasks their brains’ responses to sounds became significantly limited. It was also seen that the respondents failed to detect sounds while they were engaged in visual tasks, even when the sounds were audible. If the visual task was easy people were able to put their ears to work, but when the visual task was hard they had no such luck.
“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,” says the study co-author Dr Maria Chait, from the UCL Ear Institute.
The news itself isn’t new. The ‘inattentional deafness’ issue has been addressed by research before. However, the current study is different because it measures brain activity in real time through use of magnetoencephalography (MEG).
The experience itself is so common that there are only a few people that may not be able to relate to it. Who hasn’t sat next to someone so engrossed in 50 Shades of Grey that they can’t hear a word they’re saying? Or who hasn’t repeatedly told a story to a 9Gagger friend and wondered why they aren’t paying attention?
Well now everyone has a legitimate excuse, and this one is backed by science. It’s not that you’re boring, it’s just that whatever someone is looking at is more interesting!
Of course, this can cause serious trouble too. For someone who is driving and get tangles in a visual treat and ignores sound cues by mistake. There have been accidents where even pedestrians, who are hooked to their phones, have ended up on the wrong side of a hospital bed.
Scientists have also looked into inattentional blindness where people fail to notice glaringly obvious anomalies because they are focused elsewhere. The human brain is messed up indeed.