Being super visually focused can make you (temporarily) deaf

If you guys read like I do, when you get into a book, you are in that book. My friends and loved ones can try to talk to me while I’m reading, but unless they physically shake my shoulder, I won’t even realize they’re speaking.

For the longest time I thought this was due to my mad concentration skills. I was wrong. Apparently, I was temporarily deaf! Eek.

A new study out of the United Kingdom reveals that concentrating and placing undivided attention into a visual task can make a person temporarily deaf to sounds coming from within their environment. Researchers at the University College London called this deficit “inattentional deafness.”

In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, UCL researchers explained that a person’s sense of vision and hearing are located in a shared and limited neural resource of the brain called the association cortex. Because of the limitation in processing capacity, the brain is forced to choose between the two senses and fails to multi-task.

“In order to hear, we don’t just need our ears to be operating; we need our brain to respond to the sound,” explained UCL Professor and study co-author Nilli Lavie.

Brain scans from 13 volunteers found that when they were engaged in a demanding visual task, the brain’s response to sound was significantly reduced, even though the sounds were clearly audible and the volunteers did detect them when the visual task was easy.  According to the study, “inattentional deafness” can have some pretty serious implications A surgeon who is concentrating on his task might not hear the beeping of equipment. Drivers and cyclists focusing on complex directions may also fail to detect sounds. Could this be cause for alarm?

Lavie clarifies that sounds such as horns and sirens are loud enough to be detected, but sounds such as car engines and bicycle bells are less likely to be heard.

“You may think that the person is ignoring you,” Lavie said. “But their brain just can’t respond to your voice. So you shouldn’t take it personally.”

Well, now I know not to be offended if my boyfriend doesn’t reply to my questions when he’s working on the computer. I’ll just tell him he’s suffering from “inattentional deafness.” Now the question is whether or not he’ll hear the diagnosis!

Related reading: 

The 7 phases of being obsessed with a book

[Image via Wikipedia]