Many of us know the situation; at a party you would like to talk to a person but this can be quite exhausting due to the background noise. You may have even experienced it this past weekend during your new years celebration. The words of your conversation partner are drowned out by the conversation of others and the music. High concentration is placed on the voice of the person talking, and separating out that voice from the background noises around us, causing a stressed attention system. This is known as “the cocktail party phenomenon”.
In recent research it has been found that men hear better at parties and are more capable of separating relevant sounds from the background noise.
Natural selection and evolution
The researchers from the Neurological Clinic of the University Hospital and the Hertie Institute for Clinical Brain Research (HIH) in Tübingen, Germany, found that the audio-spatial abilities of men are more highly developed than those of women. The researchers think that men’s ability to hear better at parties may be due to the different evolutionary requirements of the sexes. Over time men have developed these spatial abilities as a result of natural and sexual selection throughout human evolution.
“Men were the ones who hunted for food. Here, attention performance was extremely important. Thus prey could be localised by noise before it could be seen,” said Ida Zündorf and Prof. Hans Otto Karnath from the University Hospital in Tübingen.
In the study, the participants were asked to listen to sounds and determine the location of the sound source. In a first test, sounds were presented one at a time and both women and men accomplished the task with great accuracy. In a further test, several sounds were presented at the same time and the participants had to focus on and localise only one sound. The latter was much more difficult for women. In some cases women even thought that the sounds were coming from the opposite direction.