How do you hear your name above the din in a party?
I’m sure you have had the experience of being somewhere crowded and noisy, but have heard your name through the din. You can even hear your name over the noise of the conversation you are involved in.
In my last post I related the experiment which showed we hold a huge amount of information in our sensory store for a very short amount of time. That information comes from our sight, hearing and touch senses. We can hold a conversation in a noisy room because we are able to choose which information to focus on. If we focus on the conversation with the people we are standing with, we are able to take in what they say and the rest becomes a background blur. We are thereby never aware of what everyone else was saying in the room, but can move what our friends said into working memory, and respond to it. This is called the Cocktail Party Effect.
However, there appears to be some sort of semantic filter going on below your awareness. It is constantly scanning for sensory input which might be important to you so that it can bring it to your attention. And what could be more important to you than your name?
When someone says your name, even though you are attending to a completely different conversation, this filter grabs you. It pulls your attention away from the conversation and alerts you to the fact that someone just said your name. You can then try to work out who it was and why, and if you are needed elsewhere.
This is undoubtedly useful. Unfortunately it also means you miss whatever was going on in the conversation of which you are supposed to be a part. You can only pay attention to one thing at at time.