.

  • Written by Simon Lilburn, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Melbourne
When you're looking for a destination, you might need to cut down the volume Shutterstock

You’re driving down an unfamiliar street on a clear spring evening. You’ve been invited to a friend of a friend’s party, at a house you’ve never been to before.

Tracking the street numbers, you see you’re getting close, so you (almost automatically) turn the radio down. Finally, with all that music out of the way, you might actually be able to see the house.

Why is it that Cardi B must be silenced so you can better see the address of your party? For that matter, why do we have a convention to read silently when in a library?

One response might be: “When we need to concentrate a little more, like when we’re looking for a house in the dark, we often try to get rid of distractions so we can focus.”


Read more: Curious Kids: is it OK to listen to music while studying?


This answer is intuitively appealing. It’s also exactly the kind of answer cognitive psychologists try to avoid.

The words concentrate, distractions, and focus all point towards something (attention) that is left undefined. Rather than detailing its properties and how it works, we just assume people intuitively know what it means.

This is a little circular, like a dictionary using a word in its own definition.

Hashtag nofilter

When you have a problem that seems inseparable from intuition, one way to get a handle on it is to a use a metaphor.

One of the most important metaphors for attention was provided by psychologist Donald Broadbent in 1958: attention acts like a filter. In his metaphor, all sensory information – everything we see, hear, feel on our skin, and so on – is retained in the mind for a very short period simply as physical sensation (a colour in a location, a tone in the left ear).

But when it comes to bringing meaning to that sensory information, Broadbent argued, we have limited capacity. So attention is the filter that determines which parts of the torrent of incoming sensation are processed.

It might seem like this broad description of a filter doesn’t buy us much in terms of explanation. Yet, sadly for Broadbent, he gave just enough detail to be proven incorrect.

A year after the publication of Broadbent’s book, the psychologist Neville Moray found that when people are listening to two simultaneous streams of speech and asked to concentrate on just one of them, many can still detect their own name if it pops up in the other stream.


Read more: What does our attention span mean?


This suggests that even when you’re not paying attention, some sensory information is still processed and given meaning (that a mass of sounds is our name). What does that tell us about how this central bottleneck of attention might act?

Radar love

One answer comes from a remarkable 1998 study by Anne-Marie Bonnel and Ervin Hafter. It builds upon one of the most successful theories in all psychology, signal detection theory, which describes how people make decisions based on ambiguous sensory information, rather like how a radar might detect a plane.

One of the basic problems of radar detection is to work out whether it is more likely that what is being detected is a signal (an enemy plane) or just random noise. This problem is the same for human perception.

Although apparently a metaphor like Broadbent’s filter, signal detection theory can be evaluated mathematically. The mathematics of human identification, it turns out, largely match those of radar operation.

A perfect circle

Bonnel and Hafter recognised that if people have a finite amount of attention to divide between vision and hearing, you could expect to see a particular pattern in certain experiments.

Imagine attention as an arrow of a fixed length that can swing back and forth between sight and hearing. When it’s pointing entirely towards sight, there’s no room for any focus on hearing (and vice versa). But if a little attention is taken up by hearing, that means there is less directed towards sight. If you graph this relationship, the tip of the arrow will draw a neat circle as it swings from one to the other.

Sure enough, the data from their experiments did indeed form a circle, but only in a certain case. When people were asked simply to detect whether a stimulus was present, there was no trade-off (paying more attention to vision did not change hearing performance and vice versa). It was only when people were asked to identify the specific stimulus that this circle appeared.


Read more: Health Check: can people actually multitask?


This suggests that while do we indeed have a limited capacity to process information, this is only the case when we’re processing the information for meaning, rather than being aware of its presence.

Our own research suggests this pattern indicates some deeper constraint at the heart of the way we perceive the world.

The circle represents a fundamental limit on processing. We can never leave that circle, all we can do is move forwards or backwards along it by choosing to focus our attention.

When our visual task becomes difficult – like finding a house number in the dark rather than simply scanning the road – we move along that circle to optimise the signal from our visual system. In many cases, we can only do that by turning down the input to our auditory system, by literally turning down the radio. Sorry, Cardi B.

Philip Smith receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

Simon Lilburn does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Authors: Simon Lilburn, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Melbourne

Read more http://theconversation.com/turn-down-for-what-why-you-turn-down-the-radio-when-youre-trying-to-park-your-car-126263

Boosting Your Child’s Learning through Play

Being a parent is probably the highest responsibility one has in a lifetime. Once it happens, it becomes ongoing and keeps posing new challenges to us. Of course, it may seem easy from some perspe...

Diana Smith - avatar Diana Smith

Different ideas of Christmas Gifts to give to your beloved ones

"CHRISTMAS GIFTS – one of the best festival gifts to give to your closed ones. Find Christmas presents for everybody on your checklist. Christmas is now here, and if that you haven't got a hop on ...

News Company - avatar News Company

The Ultimate Guide to Sneakers and Sneaker Brands

When it comes to finding the perfect pair of sneakers, it can be hard to know where to start. Finding the right pair for any kind of occasion can be difficult, so brushing up on your knowledge of sn...

News Company - avatar News Company

View from The Hill: Morrison won't have a bar of public service intrusions on government's power

Scott Morrison has rejected or sidelined a number of recommendations from the long-awaited Thodey review. AAP/Paul BravenScott Morrison has rejected or sidelined a number of recommendations from the l...

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra - avatar Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

VIDEO: Michelle Grattan reflects on the year in politics

For their last video for the year, University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor Deep Saini and Michelle Grattan look backwards to the big issues which have shaped political discourse. They discuss the surpr...

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra - avatar Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

Choosing a Heavy Weighted Bathmats

Decorating your bathroom doesn’t finish with the paint choice or tile colours. You can change the whole room with the change of your towel set. There are no rules that say that you need to have a ...

News Company - avatar News Company

God as man, man as God: no wonder many Christian men today are having a masculinity crisis

How men saw God shaped how they saw themselves, and in turn, how they saw women. WikimediaThis article is part of our Gender and Christianity series. To understand contemporary Christian ideas about...

William Loader, Emeritus Professor of New Testament at Murdoch University, Murdoch University - avatar William Loader, Emeritus Professor of New Testament at Murdoch University, Murdoch University

Australia needs a national crisis plan, and not just for bushfires

Bushfires aren't the only catastrophic emergency Australia is likely to see. AAP Image/Mick TsikasCalls are growing for a national bushfire plan, including from former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull...

Andrew Gissing, General Manager, Risk Frontiers, Adjunct Fellow, Macquarie University - avatar Andrew Gissing, General Manager, Risk Frontiers, Adjunct Fellow, Macquarie University

Your Christmas shopping could harm or help the planet. Which will it be?

Many Australian consumers are concerned at the environmental impact of their shopping habits, especially at Christmas. AAPAustralian shoppers are set to spend $52.7 billion this Christmas. In the word...

Louise Grimmer, Senior Lecturer in Marketing, Tasmanian School of Business and Economics, University of Tasmania - avatar Louise Grimmer, Senior Lecturer in Marketing, Tasmanian School of Business and Economics, University of Tasmania

Right-swipes and red flags – how young people negotiate sex and safety on dating apps

For many young people, app dating is just part of regular dating life. freestocks.org/UnsplashPopular commentary on dating apps often associates their use with “risky” sex, harassment and ...

Kath Albury, Professor of Media and Communication, Faculty of Health, Arts and Design, Swinburne University of Technology - avatar Kath Albury, Professor of Media and Communication, Faculty of Health, Arts and Design, Swinburne University of Technology

Bougainville has voted to become a new country, but the journey to independence is not yet over

The Autonomous Region of Bougainville, a chain of islands that lie 959 kilometres northwest of Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby, has voted unequivocally for independence. The referendum...

Anna Powles, Senior Lecturer in Security Studies, Massey University - avatar Anna Powles, Senior Lecturer in Security Studies, Massey University

Comfortable Footwear That'll Get You Through From Day To Night In Style

When you are choosing your footwear, you need to make sure that you are choosing something that is going to be comfortable. This is especially important if you are going to be wearing your shoes a...

Rosana Beechum - avatar Rosana Beechum

How to Have a Peaceful Retirement

Retirement is the time to treat yourself after a lifetime of working, to complete your bucket list and to spend time with the people that you care for. However, having a peaceful retirement can be d...

News Company - avatar News Company

Friday essay: eco-disaster films in the 21st century - helpful or harmful?

A scene from the 2017 film Geostorm: many societies have historically attempted to deal with collective trauma by replaying and restaging it in art. Warner Bros., Electric Entertainment, Rat Pac-Dune ...

Ari Mattes, Lecturer in Communications and Media, University of Notre Dame Australia - avatar Ari Mattes, Lecturer in Communications and Media, University of Notre Dame Australia

A new study shows an animal's lifespan is written in the DNA. For humans, it's 38 years

A genetic "clock" lets scientists estimate how long extinct creatures lived. Wooly mammoths could expect around 60 years. Australian MuseumHumans have a “natural” lifespan of around 38 yea...

Benjamin Mayne, Molecular biologist and bioinformatician, CSIRO - avatar Benjamin Mayne, Molecular biologist and bioinformatician, CSIRO

Vital Signs: Australia's wafer-thin surplus rests on a mine disaster in Brazil

On Monday the Australian government will release the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO). This will – as required by the Charter of Budget Honesty – provide an update on the key a...

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics, UNSW - avatar Richard Holden, Professor of Economics, UNSW

Don't believe the stereotype: these 5 charts show our democracy is safe in the hands of future voters

Almost 900 school kids, aged 12 to 17, were surveyed. ShutterstockA new, ongoing survey on how young Australians understand and imagine their democracy is already challenging long-held stereotypes. ...

Mark Evans, Professor of Governance and Director of Democracy 2025 - bridging the trust divide at Old Parliament House, University of Canberra - avatar Mark Evans, Professor of Governance and Director of Democracy 2025 - bridging the trust divide at Old Parliament House, University of Canberra

Private health insurance premiums should be based on age and health status

Policy changes have failed to stop young people dropping their private health insurance. ShutterstockPrivate health insurance has come under intense scrutiny in recent months, as it becomes clear heal...

Francesco Paolucci, Associate Professor; Head of Health Policy Program, Sir Walter Murdoch School of Public Policy and International Affairs, University of Newcastle - avatar Francesco Paolucci, Associate Professor; Head of Health Policy Program, Sir Walter Murdoch School of Public Policy and International Affairs, University of Newcastle

Knowledge is a process of discovery: how constructivism changed education

According to constructivists, we truly understand something when we filter it through our senses and interactions. from shutterstock.comThis is the second of two essays exploring key theories – ...

Luke Zaphir, Researcher for the University of Queensland Critical Thinking Project; and Online Teacher at Education Queensland's IMPACT Centre, The University of Queensland - avatar Luke Zaphir, Researcher for the University of Queensland Critical Thinking Project; and Online Teacher at Education Queensland's IMPACT Centre, The University of Queensland

Sick and Tired of Your Dead End Job? Try Teaching!

Tired of the same old grind at the office? Want an opportunity to impact lives both in your community and around the world? Do you love to travel and have new experiences? Teaching English is the perfect job for you! All you need is a willingness to ...

News Company - avatar News Company

The Impact of an Aging Population in Australia

There’s an issue on the horizon that Australia needs to prepare for. The portion of elderly citizens that make up the country’s overall population is increasing, and we might not have the infrastructure in place to support this. Australians h...

News Company - avatar News Company

LifeStyle

Boosting Your Child’s Learning through Play

Being a parent is probably the highest responsibility one has in a lifetime. Once it happens, it...

Different ideas of Christmas Gifts to give to your beloved ones

"CHRISTMAS GIFTS – one of the best festival gifts to give to your closed ones. Find Christmas pr...

How to Have a Peaceful Retirement

Retirement is the time to treat yourself after a lifetime of working, to complete your bucket list...

Latest Wednesday Lotto Results

Wednesday Lotto draw 3917 Lucky numbers for this draw were 43 followed by 25. The rest of the...