I hear you, but I also hear the cat licking its paws a mile away...
February 23, 2012 4:36 PM   Subscribe

Attention Filter: I can't filter things out when it comes to hearing.

I have an issue whereby when in a room where there are more than one source of audio information (i.e. two TVs showing different channels, a TV and some conversation going on, two TVs, two conversations and an altercation going on outside) I cannot force my brain to ignore erroneous sounds and focus on one source of audio. Instead I hear all of them equally no matter how hard I concentrate. It's confusing as hell. Is this normal?
posted by dougrayrankin to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I had the same problem until I got meds for ADD. Outside noises still make me crazy but not to the point of distraction that they did before--I was unable to read, write or anything else without ear plugs.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:43 PM on February 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

It could be normal. How loud are these TVs? ;)

I also have a lot of trouble in rooms with lots of TVs or conversations. Seriously can not understand a single word being said to me in very crowded, noisy rooms because I can't filter out the words properly - it sounds like one big lump of noise that I can't separate out. So I was diagnosed with an Auditory Processing learning disability as a kid because of it. It affected a few things, among them that I can't read out loud very well, phonics might as well be greek, and so forth. I did a bit of special ed in primary school to help that out, and although I still have problems with the whole read out loud thing, I can work around it.
posted by lyra4 at 4:47 PM on February 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think that's fairly normal, particularly for people who tend to be "auditory learners" (i.e. more inclined to weight auditory input over the visual or tactile).

Then again, if you have problem discerning noises in crowded situations, you might have some hearing impairment. When was the last time you had your hearing checked?
posted by ErikaB at 4:49 PM on February 23, 2012

As an adult I was thought by a specialist to have CAPD, mainly due to my left ear. The diagnosis called for me to wear a custom ear filter in my left ear, to sit on the right side of classrooms so that my right ear could hear better than my left, and to obtain a set of class notes so I could concentrate harder on listening to the class. I thought it helped me. I don't know what the financial arrangements are for seeing an auditory specialist, but you may want to have testing done.

That said, sometimes these things can be self-fulfilling prophesies.
posted by michaelh at 4:54 PM on February 23, 2012

CAPD in my answer refers to Central Auditory Processing Disorder. See Lyra's link above.
posted by michaelh at 5:01 PM on February 23, 2012

That sounds totally normal to me. Two tvs would drive me crazy. I have no ADD or other hearIng problems but I was interested in the description in Susan Cain's book Quiet about how introverts are frequently more sensitive to that sort of thing. Are you an introvert?
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 5:55 PM on February 23, 2012

How old are you? I have heard from audiologists that there are hearing disorders that amplify background noise and/or suppress foreground sound (conversation). Time for a hearing test?
posted by megatherium at 5:59 PM on February 23, 2012

I have the same problem - two TVs or two radios or a radio playing while someone talks makes me crazy. In a crowded bar I cannot understand what other people are saying even though they seem to understand each other and me.

At work someone talking a few cubicles away while I'm trying to have a conversation at my desk can throw me completely off.

Watching this thread with interest.
posted by bunderful at 6:58 PM on February 23, 2012

I don't know whether it's normal, but it happens to me too. And my family gets so grumpy with me when I say or do something about it, so I've known it's not everyone - but I have never wondered how many other people are bugged by such things. Thank you for asking!

I have great hearing, and am noise-sensitive on top of it, so I never thought of this as a separate thing on its own. Because one of my jobs takes place in a noisy room with children, I often tell them "Please speak in a loud clear voice and look at me when you're talking to me" as much because it's a manners thing, as it is because otherwise I hear nothing, though I see their lips moving. Often, it helps me to focus if there is only one thing in my line of vision - other times, I need to unfocus my eyes so that I can concentrate on what I'm hearing. Sometimes it must seem very rude of me not to make eye contact, but depending where I am, I can't always do both or my brain feels scrambled.
posted by peagood at 7:13 PM on February 23, 2012

I have the same thing -- for example, I have trouble hearing the person who's talking to me when there are other sounds going on.

I had my hearing tested, and the audiologist said it was normal. She said that my problem was one of attention and processing. She didn't have any solutions except for suggesting that I somehow practice focusing.

The only thing that has really helped is to say, "I sometimes have trouble hearing" and then move closer to the person I'm trying to hear. It helps if I can also see their lips. (And anyone out there who thinks they need to cover their mouth when they speak during a meal -- stop doing that!)

Ironically, when I was a musician, I could isolate "my" part from a piece being played by a group and play along by ear. My challenge is understanding words.
posted by ceiba at 7:54 PM on February 23, 2012

I am sitting in my office with the door closed AND with earplugs in. ANd I can tell you that the heating element in the coffee machine in the kitchenette outside of my office just shut off, and that one of my coworkers is pouring water from the water cooler into a bottle as I write this. I am insanely sensitive to voices, sounds, anything. TV's in bars drive me crazy, but so to people's conversations 3 tables over in a normal restaurant. I have to mute the TV when the commercials are on, I generally need to listen to TV at a lower volume than most people.

When I take ADD meds and am concentrating intensely on something I am working on I can tune some things out, but in order to get into that zone I need to immerse myself in silence. Even at home, when I am the only one there I have to wear earplugs to concentrate, but I also have to block off visual distractions - I love having an office door because I don't feel the need to look at every single person who walks past my office if I close it they way I do when it's open.

I'd say its not particularly normal, but as you can tell from the answers in the thread it is pretty common. Are you asking for advice on how to handle it, or are you just asking if this is how normal people experience life?
posted by 8dot3 at 5:44 AM on February 24, 2012

Response by poster: In terms of my hearing standards, I had a Class 1 Aviation Medical (required for Commercial Pilot's Licence) done a little over three months ago and passed the hearing test with flying colours.

Just to clarify - not looking for advice on how to handle this specifically, just trying to find if it's common or uncommon - that is, feeling like I'm doing the audio equivalent of squinting to try and "focus" on the sound I want to hear and not hear all sounds equally.
posted by dougrayrankin at 7:33 AM on February 24, 2012

Yeah, I have the same thing. If you see a person going round the gym lowering the volume on all the TVs, that'll be me. I find it very irritating to hear multiple sources of sound, and some types of sound more than others. But I practically stopped going out with groups of people to bars/restaurants, because I can't hear anything they say (plus, in a group, there are several conversations going on at once, so it's even worse) and I end up sitting there mute, unable to participate in the conversation, and slowly going crazy under the assault of noise from everywhere.
posted by Ender's Friend at 7:51 AM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Normal for me. I know people who can filter out annoying sounds -- they're usually parents, who learn this trick when their kids are infants.
posted by Rash at 9:36 AM on February 24, 2012

Nthing Auditory Processing Disorder. I had it through childhood but only figured it out when I got to the bigger classes of university. Apparently my coping mechanisms of (a) be a nerd and read everything, (b) be a nerd and sit at the front of the class, (c) be a nerd and have discussions with teachers when I didn't 100% understand something, had seen me safely through high school.

It's easy to adjust if I give it a little thought: for example, at a restaurant I need to sit with my back to the wall or even better in a corner to cut down on background noise; in a meeting I prefer to be able to see everyone's face. I was also told when diagnosed that this can have a lot of the same symptoms as certain kinds of ADD-related issues...some people have trouble narrowing their focus or switching their focus, as opposed to an inability to focus per se.

I'd say it's not uncommon. If you work in a loud environment (cockpit?) you may need some accommodation (but I seem to recall pilots wear headphones?) so there may be some benefit to getting tested eventually, but if you find you are coping with a few small tricks I wouldn't worry about it. It's one of those things that straddles the line between learning difference and learning disability, depending on severity and circumstances.
posted by sarahkeebs at 4:29 AM on February 27, 2012

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