Friday, March 18, 2016

The Cocktail Party Effect

As my hearing loss progresses I am being forced to understand the phenomenon that is our brain to ear relationship.  Not in the medical or technical sense but simply in the way we function daily with regards to hearing.  

The focus for me lately has been one of bugging.  Bugging?  Yes, bugging.  You see the modern day bug is designed to scan a frequency and identify trigger words that may deem us a threat to whatever or whomever wants to monitor us.  What we don't realize is that as we walk around through life our own ears are bugging almost the entire time.  How else do you explain our ability to know someone is talking about us, or the way we jerk our head into a conversation that is being had around us because we heard a word that was of interest.  What about our uncanny ability to hear our name even throughout a crowded room?  That actually has a scientific term, The Cocktail Party Effect.  

The Cocktail Party Effect is the phenomenon of being able to focus one's auditory attention on a particular stimulus while filtering out a range of other stimuli, much the same way that a party goer can focus on a single conversation in a noisy room.  This effect is what allows most people to "tune into" a single voice and "tune out" all others. It may also describe a similar phenomenon that occurs when one may immediately detect words of importance originating from unattended stimuli, for instance hearing one's name in another conversation.

You see our computer like minds are scanning constantly.  I don't know what fuels it and while scientist vary on the reason they are united on the event.  Perhaps it is that we feel like we might miss out if we drown out all background and truly focus on one thing at a time.  Maybe it is simply the way our brain is designed, to monitor and survey.  It could also possibly come from the way we are taught speech as children.  This effect has been shown to be neurological, physical and situational.  I don't know the reason and I don't stand behind one explanation or another, all I know is - I am no longer good at it.

I no longer have the capability of scanning anything. 

The "Cocktail Party Effect" in my life consists of me working hard, very hard to stay engaged in the conversation that is being had with me. 

Every other piece of sound as it bounces off the walls, pings chandeliers, slides smoothly and quickly along tile floors, dances through the light or wraps around the feet of those in attendance is lost on me. 
 
Understanding what the loss of this technique looks like is difficult to explain.  

Imagine yourself standing in a room with two people, both of whom are important to you.  In my case we will use my husband and one of my children.  A conversation begins between my husband and I while our child is silent.  This is a good environment for me to understand and function in a conversation.  At some point though the child begins to talk, not to us, but to himself as he plays.  This is how my mind responds:

Scenario 1 - I consciously choose to push that noise from my processing senses but after minutes pass and my husband begins looking at me with concern in his eyes I realize something has changed. My child has been talking to me for awhile and I have had no idea.  

Scenario 2 - I make the decision to allow his sound to continue to pass through the processing part of my mind in which case if there was an emergency I would be able to react to it.  Thus I begin the tiring task of working through the conflicting sounds to decipher both threads of noise only to find after minutes pass that I am no longer able to keep up with the conversation at hand.  

Scenario 3 - My mind makes the decision for me and it chooses one or the other without me knowing it.  And in this setting Scenario 1 becomes scary to me because it chooses where my mind is focused most and that might not be the wisest or safest thing.  And if Scenario 2 is what my minds chooses, I will find myself all of a sudden getting so frustrated that I will snap at the person who is not the primary focus of my moment.     

This is why as of late my life and my energy have been very frustrating.  I don't know how to help others understand.  My bug analogy might be the closest I can come.

In a crowded room if we are having a conversation rest assured you have my full attention.  And please if you are not the one talking to me a touch on the shoulder would be appreciated if you want to engage me.

Calling my name may simply not be enough.

Speaking a request out loud with me in the room most assuredly is not going to produce any results.

I do not do this on purpose but my brain and my ear began this dance out of preservation.

I wish I could still scan.

I miss out on a lot and sometimes that gap can feel like a chasm with no hope of reaching the other side.

It is something I have to let go of in order to succeed in things that are more important.

I truly love talking and having conversation which is why I continue to push myself and train my brain to respond differently and try new things.  I do think that with more time I will be more successful in this process.

In fact, in about a week I am attending a formal event where there will be chandeliers, marble floors, hundreds of people talking, glasses clinking, high heels tapping, music playing and me.   I have decided that I am going to soak up all of the sound and hopefully find my little ribbon of silence when I am talking one on one or in a group.  Cocktail Effect or not, I plan on having meaningful conversations throughout the evening!