Modern living often forces us into situations of sensory overload involving competing voices on a bustling street or at a crowded cocktail party. The process by which our brains selectively hear or ignore voices and sounds is a fascinating one.
New research from Queen's University suggests that middle-aged couples are able to selectively tune out each other’s speech so they can pay greater attention to other people talking.
The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that husbands and wives become so familiar with one another’s pitch and sound that they can distinguish it from background noise and ignore it if necessary. However, this ability diminished with age.
“Middle-age people can ignore their spouse — older people aren’t able to as much,” says researcher Ingrid Johnsrude. “The benefit of familiarity is very large.”
Johnsrude and her colleagues asked married couples, aged 44-79, to record themselves reading scripted instructions out loud. Later, each participant put on a pair of headphones and listened to the recording of his or her spouse as it played simultaneously with a recording of an unfamiliar voice.
The first experiment asked participants what the stranger's voice was saying, and the second experiment asked participants to report what their spouse was saying.
When the subjects were asked to focus on the unfamiliar voice, the middle-aged participants more accurately reported the unfamiliar voice than older people.
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“The middle-aged adults were able to use what they knew about the familiar voice to perceptually separate and ignore it, so as to hear the unfamiliar voice better,” Johnsrude explains.
However, when participants had report what their spouses said, age was not a factor. Both middle-aged and older adults were equally accurate in their assessments, and in fact, were more accurate than when reporting the stranger's voice.
The researchers believe their study demonstrates the overall benefit of a familiar voice, particularly since older people often have a hard time hearing speech.
“Our study identifies a cognitive factor — voice familiarity — that could help older listeners to hear better in these situations,” says Johnsrude.