November 14, 2006

The Fabulous Path of Self-Discovery

So, the other night, I was trying to watch television, which has always required a laser-like focus on my part; any extraneous noise totally distracts me. It was while I was trying to focus on "Cindarella Man" that I became aware of Melissa's cell phone ringing in some other room in the house. It was faint, but very much there.

Mel didn't believe me. I had to practically plead my case in front of a grand jury to get her to go check her phone, and when she finally did, she had to admit that, yes, her phone was ringing.

All of which got me to thinking: why was I able to hear that when she couldn't? A little known fact about me is that I've been fearing for years that my hearing may be sub-par, because I have a lot of trouble focusing on conversation when there's a lot of ambient noise. If I'm with a crown of people all carrying on conversations, I can't for the life of me focus on any one of them. Conversation, for me, has to be one-on-one and dedicated, with little or no surrounding noise.

I started to really think about this, and I realized that it's a problem that hounds me all over. In Jiu-jitsu, for example, when the instructor is demonstrating techniques, I can barely make out what he's saying because I'm also hearing the sound of the boxing speed bag, the fighters in the practice ring, the fighters working the heavy bags, the God-awful Rochester music on the radio, etc. It's nearly impossible for me to focus.

And then I started to realize that I may, in fact, be unusually attuned to ambient noise. For example, my former office mate's carrot crunching drove me to absolute distraction, whereas most people would probably just shrug it off. Similarly, the sound of Mel chewing potato chips or peanuts also irritates me to no end, which is just plain irrational, unless you take into account the possibility I'm particularly attuned to it.

All of which makes me wonder how much of my life has been affected by this. I mean, is it mild ADD? I've managed to cope with it now for 31 years, so it can't be that debilitating, beyond being a slight annoyance.

But still, I really wonder.

Posted by Ryan at November 14, 2006 01:00 PM | TrackBack

Being easily distracted by noise is common in people with Audiotry Processing Disorders but there are many, many other characteristics that go with that one. (

Posted by: Melanie at November 14, 2006 01:17 PM

Man, there are way too many items on that list that fit me to an absolute tee.

Posted by: Ryan at November 14, 2006 01:40 PM

I feel ya. When I'm out at bars with a group of people, I might as well be there by myself because I never have any clue what they're talking about because I can't pick up on the conversations. I just figured I listen to too much loud death metal and it's killing my ears.

Posted by: Rick at November 14, 2006 01:48 PM

You know what's funny? I have exactly the same thing and went through exactly the same chain of realizations. I used to think my hearing was bad because I had trouble making out voices when there was a lot of background noise. But then I had a series of experiences that made it pretty clear that my hearing was actually better than most people's. So, for example, I often have a much better-than-average sense of how well a machine is running or what might be wrong with it based on the sounds it's making. And I'm one of those people who will be sitting in the living room typing then jump up and run into the kitchen because I can hear the washing machine malfunctioning. Or, once when I was working in a kitchen and a pan fell off a high shelf behind me; I heard the pan fall, knew exactly where it was, took two steps backwards, reached behind me and caught it without turning around. One of my coworkers watched me to do it and was totally blown away, but I hadn't even been thinking about it. Hearing it was almost the same thing as seeing it in my mind.

Speech pathologists know that the left side of the brain is dominant in language processing-- consequently it's common for people to actually be able to parse words better with their left ear (sensory organs on the head aren't cross-wired the way the nerve structures in the rest of the body are). Small amounts of damage or even just oddities in shape and function in the left ear may screw with your ability to separate words out of the all the other sounds you're hearing-- which is to say that it's possible to have some problem parsing the sound of language but to still have excellent hearing and written/expressed language facility generally.

Posted by: Joshua at November 14, 2006 01:51 PM

Though, yeah, your vocabulary's rubbish, so Melanie's probably right-- you're probably retarded.

Posted by: Joshua at November 14, 2006 01:55 PM

Retarded was my first prognosis, too, mainly because it would give me all sorts of excuses to dabble in bad behavior, like that one guy who pretended to be retarded in that episode of "Just Shoot Me."

Posted by: Ryan at November 14, 2006 02:45 PM

Guys, welcome to my world. Imagine trying to listen to someone whispering with your head in a bucket of water and it gets close. Bars especially are a complete non-starter, and therefore so is my love life. Bugger.

Posted by: simon at November 15, 2006 06:41 AM

You know, Simon, at this very moment the world's smallest violin is playing "My Heart Bleeds for You."

Now, if only you could hear it...

Posted by: Joshua at November 15, 2006 07:01 AM


Posted by: Ryan at November 15, 2006 08:32 AM

The phenomenon you are talking about is called the cocktail phenomenon, basically most people are able to tune out ambient noise, annoying siblings, etc. Anyway, from a psychological standpoint, It's my opinion that you probably have some difficulty differentiating noises from the ones you feel you should focus on. Try, reading and other mental tasks that require a certain amount of gusto to accomplish while listening to fairly loud or fast music with someone singing in it while you read. It might help.

Posted by: Doc at November 15, 2006 10:55 AM

It's interesting you should mention that, Doc. I've never been able to read with a radio or television on. I've always had to sequester myself in a quiet room to read anything. The same also applies to my writing. If I'm writing, and there's music or words of any kind in the background, those words will actually occasionally appear in my writing, totally out of context to what I'm writing about. It's kind of disconcerting to be editing a technical article I wrote, and encounter a brief snippet of Fleetwood Mac lyrics. I've found that I can listen to classical music and still write. So long as there are no (English) lyrics, it's usually fine.

Posted by: Ryan at November 15, 2006 11:39 AM

Well that's disconcerting. I do the same thing. The only music I can listen to when I'm writing-- especially writing fiction --is either instrumental, or so familiar that I don't hear the words anymore. But relatively new music with lyrics just stops me cold. My brain starts looping on the lyrics and I can't get a single word down on the screen.

And, speaking of plagiarism, I've sometimes incorporated themes and phrases from songs I was listening to while I was writing into my work and not realized it for weeks, or even years.

Posted by: Joshua at November 15, 2006 01:08 PM

Mine is just the opposite, I have to have some noise in the background or I can't concentrate. It's like one part of my brain has to be otherwise occupied so the part that needs to learn, or study something can be freed up to gather that knowledge. If I don't, then that part is just out wandering around. (And it's too small to be let out by itself.)
I always thought it was because I'm left handed, maybe I'm also left eared? Hmm.

Posted by: Donna at November 17, 2006 10:45 AM
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