“One of the most striking facts about our ears is that we have two of them—
and yet we hear one acoustic world; only one voice per speaker”(Cherry, 1953 pp. 975-979 & Arons, 1992)
Much of the early work in this area can be traced to problems faced by air traffic controllers in the early 1950’s. At that time, controllers received messages from pilots over loudspeakers in the control tower. Hearing the intermixed voices of many pilots over a single loudspeaker made the controller ’s task very difficult.
This concerns the problem of following only one conversation while many other conversations are going on around us. Cherry studied “shadowing tasks to study this problem, which involve playing two different auditory messages to a participant’s left and right ears and instructing them to attend to only one. The participant must then shadow this attended message” (Arons, 1992)
Cherry found that very little information about the unattended message was obtained by his participants: “physical characteristics were detected but semantic characteristics were not. Cherry therefore concluded that unattended auditory information receives very little processing and that we use physical differences between messages to select which one we attend to”(Arons, 1992).
Jr. High Research
In my two years working with jr. high students I have been able to make some correlations between the separation of two voices in the cocktail party effect and the technological savvy of this age group. Instead of being able to pull out different conversations they can multi-task among technological devices. The ability to text message and keep up a conversation, or listen to a lesson. Even though they are focused on a cell phone they are still able to pull out the importance of the conversation going on around them. I have seen that they are able to switch between devices easily because they are different means. Just as Cherry pointed out that different tones are easier to switch between so to are the different functions and screens that the jr. high students transfer between each and every day. Foehr’s 2006 thesis, Media multitasking among American youth: Prevalence, pairings and predictors, explores trends in the relatively newly researched phenomenon of media multitasking among American youth. The premise of the study described here is that the way young people use media is changing dramatically. New technologies, such as the computer and handheld devices (e.g., personal data assistants, or PDAs), appear to foster the behavior pattern of constantly switching between such activities as instant messaging (IM), emailing, playing a video game, ordering a book online, or watching the news on television. The phenomenon of engaging in more than one media activity at a time “is a common occurrence” (Foehr, 2006a); in 2005, a Kaiser Family Foundation (Foehr, 2006a) report showed an increase in media multitasking: 26% of media time is spent on multiple media, up from 16% of media time in 1999.
Switching attention from one task to another, the toggling action, occurs right behind the forehead called Brodmann’s Area 10 in the brain’s anterior prefrontal cortex, “’The most anterior part allows you to leave something when it’s incomplete and return to the same place and continue from there.’ This gives us a ‘form of multitasking,’ he says, though it’s actually sequential processing. Because the prefrontal cortex is one of the last regions of the brain to mature and one of the first to decline with aging, young children do not multitask well, and neither do most adults over 60” (Wallis, 2006).