You asked him to take out the trash. He didn’t hear you. You asked him to move the car back into the garage. He didn’t hear you. You mentioned the new ice cream in the freezer. And that–that he heard! Seems like a pretty open and shut case of selective hearing.
Or is it.
What you’re probably witnessing is hearing loss more than it is selective hearing. Admittedly, it’s easy to get the two mixed up. The early signs of hearing loss often present in a way that looks (and sounds) a lot like selective hearing, especially in challenging noise environments.
What is selective hearing?
If you’re wondering, selective hearing is a real thing (not just a joke about spouses). True cases of selective hearing occur because of how your brain filters and perceives sound information and other sensory data. Simply put, your brain has a lot of work to do every second of every day! Every sound you hear is cataloged and prioritized.
Sometimes your brain happens to be so focused on one thing–the taste of your cereal, the birds singing playfully outside, your to-do list for the day–that other stimuli fall by the wayside (your brain automatically categorizes them as less of a priority).
So when somebody mentions moving the car back into the garage, your brain doesn’t want to interrupt your deep focus. (When this happens on a conscious, active level, it’s just called ignoring someone–not selective hearing). Your brain might elevate specific phrases or keywords into your higher-order attention–that’s why a mention of ice cream can get your attention (or if someone yells that the house is on fire–same idea). But your brain does all of that processing without your awareness.
How hearing loss factors in
You’re probably wondering what hearing loss has to do with any of that. And that would be a fair question. Hearing loss can occur for various reasons, but it usually develops slowly. At first, your hearing may be so minimally compromised that you don’t even notice an impairment.
At least, that’s true in most situations. If you’re in a crowded restaurant or a noisy kitchen, your brain will typically cope by relying on that prioritization process. (Your brain is very impressive that way!) But even slight hearing loss can interfere with this process.
Without all those tiny cues, your brain has difficulty accurately prioritizing sounds. You will likely experience something like this:
- You might not hear your surroundings as well when you’re in a state of deep focus. If you’re thinking about the crossword puzzle, for example, you might not notice someone asking you to move the car.
- Noisy rooms could become difficult, and following a conversation in that new, bustling brewpub down the street could become quite the challenge. As a result, you may participate in fewer conversations (or you’ll miss vital information when you do).
- Even loud ambient noise–a refrigerator or an air conditioner–could easily obscure voices you might otherwise have been able to hear.
The cure for selective hearing
All of these signs could easily be interpreted as simple “selective hearing.” And that makes this early sign of hearing loss all too easy to dismiss.
Suppose you’ve noticed that your partner or friend, or relative has suddenly developed what seems to be selective hearing (or you’ve been accused of this behavior yourself). In that case, it might be a good idea to schedule an appointment with a hearing specialist.
Usually, a hearing specialist will be able to run diagnostics that can determine the overall health of your hearing. Depending on the extent of your hearing loss, appropriate treatments can then be recommended.
But here’s the thing: your selective hearing gives you an amazing opportunity. Because it’s usually one of the earliest signs of hearing loss, you have the chance to address any hearing-related impairment in its earliest stages. In many cases, that means slowing the progression of further hearing declines. It turns out the cure for your selective hearing could simply be a hearing aid.