Auditory Task Irrelevance: A Basis for Inattentional Deafness

Menja Scheer, Heinrich H. Bülthoff, Lewis L. Chuang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)


Objective: This study investigates the neural basis of inattentional deafness, which could result from task irrelevance in the auditory modality. Background: Humans can fail to respond to auditory alarms under high workload situations. This failure, termed inattentional deafness, is often attributed to high workload in the visual modality, which reduces one’s capacity for information processing. Besides this, our capacity for processing auditory information could also be selectively diminished if there is no obvious task relevance in the auditory channel. This could be another contributing factor given the rarity of auditory warnings. Method: Forty-eight participants performed a visuomotor tracking task while auditory stimuli were presented: a frequent pure tone, an infrequent pure tone, and infrequent environmental sounds. Participants were required either to respond to the presentation of the infrequent pure tone (auditory task-relevant) or not (auditory task-irrelevant). We recorded and compared the event-related potentials (ERPs) that were generated by environmental sounds, which were always task-irrelevant for both groups. These ERPs served as an index for our participants’ awareness of the task-irrelevant auditory scene. Results: Manipulation of auditory task relevance influenced the brain’s response to task-irrelevant environmental sounds. Specifically, the late novelty-P3 to irrelevant environmental sounds, which underlies working memory updating, was found to be selectively enhanced by auditory task relevance independent of visuomotor workload. Conclusion: Task irrelevance in the auditory modality selectively reduces our brain’s responses to unexpected and irrelevant sounds regardless of visuomotor workload. Application: Presenting relevant auditory information more often could mitigate the risk of inattentional deafness.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)428-440
Number of pages13
JournalHuman Factors
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2018 May 1


  • auditory relevance
  • event-related potentials
  • inattentional deafness
  • novelty-P3

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Human Factors and Ergonomics
  • Applied Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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