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Direction of your gaze affects your ability to focus on particular sounds

Posted July 6, 2017

Even if you have a perfect hearing there are times when you simply miss something someone says and you don‘t know why is that. Usually it is because you were not listening carefully. Various distractions ay prevent us from hearing quieter words or noises. One of them, as scientists from UCL discovered, may actually have something to do with direction of your gaze.

Looking at the source of the sound, such as the person you are talking to, will increase chances of actually hearing what you’re supposed to listen to. Image credit: Fred W. Baker III via Wikimedia

If you are looking at the different direction than the source of the sound, you may miss what is being said. Because your sight focus and hearing focus are misaligned it takes longer for you to react. This new study showed that looking away from the source of the sound is simply asking too much from our brain and therefore listening performance suffers. When you are in the car, usually you don’t even hear the music, do you?

Scientists performed an experiment, in which 19 participants had to follow a single sound from a mixture of several in a laboratory environment. It is actually a common task we have to deal with every day. Participants had to listen to the sound from one speaker, while ignoring different sounds played on other speakers. Of course, as you might imagine, sometimes they were asked to focus their gaze on the speaker they had to listen to and sometimes they were asked to look at one of the ignored speakers. A special camera registered their eyes while electroencephalography allowed monitoring their brain activity.

There were two main findings. First of them is that reaction times are much longer when people are not looking at the speaker they are asked to focus on. Second – brain activity increases, which shows that the process of looking to one direction while listening to the sound from another direction is mentally taxing a lot and requires some mental capacity. Even scientists were surprised to see how direction of the gaze affects ability to hear what a particular speaker is playing.

Dr Maria Chait, senior author of the study, said: “We think this is because our brains are wired to expect visual gaze direction and auditory attention to be aligned. The intuitive feeling that our auditory attention is independent from gaze is an illusion”.

We have to say that participants of this study were young and effects are much greater as people age or have some hearing impairment.


Source: UCL

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