What Is Selective Listening?

Medically Reviewed by Christopher Melinosky, MD on October 24, 2023
3 min read

Your ears are constantly picking up sounds around you even when you aren’t actively listening. Selective listening is when you focus your attention on some specific information. It involves consciously or unconsciously choosing to listen to what is relevant to you and ignore what isn’t. It is a skill that anyone can develop and improve.

For example, when you visit a foreign country, you can find yourself surrounded by people who speak a language you don’t understand. Your selective listening will then kick in. You’ll instinctively tune out a lot of the noises around you because you can’t understand them. They are irrelevant to you.

As you spend more time in this new environment, you’ll learn a few foreign words. Your ears will perk up when you hear recognizable words pop out of otherwise blurry conversations around you. This new language will also sound more familiar to you if you study it or spend enough time listening to it. Then, you’ll need less effort to understand it.

As you understand it more, the once foreign language will become relevant to you. Your selective listening will reflect this new knowledge. Instead of background noise, you’ll hear familiar words and sentences.

Your brain is constantly working to interpret what you see, smell, touch, feel, and hear. Research on how the brain responds to listening has uncovered how selective listening works.

The auditory cortex is the part of the brain that processes what you hear. When you focus on a specific sound, it only responds to that sound. Even in a room full of competing noise, the neural response of your auditory cortex is only connected to what you selected to listen to.

Your brain can pick out certain tones, frequencies, and signals that it recognizes. You’ll find that in situations where you are surrounded by noises, your auditory cortex will struggle to differentiate between sounds. Your selective listening will suffer. For example, talking to someone with a deep, gruff voice at a monster truck rally could be hard because the deep tones of the voice and the truck engines could easily blend.

The complex work that your auditory cortex does is what sets you apart from voice recognition technology. You can have a conversation with someone even in a noisy room, but your phone will have a difficult time picking out your voice among a mess of other sounds.

If you struggle to tune out unimportant sounds and focus on relevant noises, you can improve your selective listening skills with the following strategies:

  • Avoid noisy environments. When your ears are overwhelmed, it’s difficult to pick out the sounds that you want to pay attention to. If you can’t escape loud situations, try doing small things to improve your surroundings. For example, choose to sit on the patio at a loud restaurant, or wear noise-canceling headphones while studying in a noisy cafeteria.
  • Turn up the volume. Ask the person talking to you to talk louder, turn up the volume when you’re listening to a podcast, or move closer to what you’re listening to. If the sound is loud enough, it will be easier to tune into the information you need.
  • Practice focused listening. Listening comes naturally to humans, but you can improve your selective listening skills by practicing focused listening. Identify what aspects of listening are challenging for you, and target those when practicing. Look at what you’re listening to, and separate what’s important from mere noise.
  • Pay attention to one thing at a time. Avoid dividing your attention if you’re already having trouble focusing. If you’re watching a movie and listening to a friend at the same time, for example, pause one and give your full attention to the other.

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is common among the general population. It often appears during childhood, when selective listening skills are developed. Its symptoms include hyperactivity, inability to pay attention, and impulsive behavior. People with ADHD typically have trouble with selective listening.

Selective listening requires you to focus on one set of sounds. If you have ADHD, it might be difficult for you to tune out unimportant sounds, especially if you’re in a noisy environment. Still, research has shown that people with ADHD can improve their selective listening skills.

Selective listening is instinctive for most people. If you’re having trouble with it, no formal diagnosis or treatment is available, but a specialist can help you.