Have you ever been chatting to someone at a crowded, noisy party, when you suddenly hear your name being mentioned in another conversation? Yet you can’t recollect any of the conversation prior to this moment.
How were you able to detect a word (your name) in a conversation that you were ignoring? How can you ignore something and yet at the same time hear it?
This is how the psychological term the ‘Cocktail Party Effect’ (Cherry, 1953) got its name.
Our ability to pay attention to a single conversation, whilst filtering out all other background noise, only to then switch at ease and tune in to the other conversations around us is remarkable and over the years, psychologists and scientists have struggled to fully understand or agree on how we are able to do this.
However, revealing how the brain can so effectively focus on a single voice is a problem of keen interest to the companies that make consumer technologies because of the tremendous future market for all kinds of electronic devices with voice-active interfaces. While the voice recognition technologies that enable such interfaces as Apple’s Siri have come a long way in the last few years, they are hugely unreliable, unusable in noisy environments and nowhere near as sophisticated as the human speech system.
An average person can walk into a noisy room and have a private conversation with relative ease — as if all the other voices in the room were muted. But replicating this technically is incredibly difficult. In fact the engineering required to separate a single intelligible voice from a cacophony of speakers and background noise remains a major challenge for state-of-the-art automatic voice recognition algorithms.