Auditory attention is the ability to focus on specific sounds and process them to extract meaning. It plays a role in activities ranging from learning to driving a car safely. People who have trouble with auditory attention may have difficulty completing ordinary tasks. Therapy is available to assist patients with conditions like Auditory Processing Disorder (APD), which makes it hard for patients to interpret and apply the sounds they hear.
Many species have sharp auditory attention skills, because they provide clear evolutionary benefits. Humans are capable of identifying speech in a wide range of conditions and separating it out from other noises. Auditory attention also allows people to be selective about the noises they hear, to concentrate on one speaker in a crowd, for example, or to tune out background clutter to focus on a particular task. A variety of cognitive processes are involved in how people acquire sounds, interpret them, and decide what to do with them.
The first aspect of auditory attention involves attracting attention. Then the person needs to stay focused long enough to process the sound, like a teacher lecturing in class, or a safety notification on board an aircraft. Finally, people release their attention to move on to other tasks. Some auditory attention tasks can be split, allowing people to listen and perform other activities at the same time. Others require focused attention, without distractions.
Sometimes, those who have difficulty with auditory attention may appear lazy, unfocused, or distracted. In classroom environments, children are sometimes warned about inappropriate behavior or failure to focus by teachers who may not realize that their inability to pay attention is not voluntary. Patients with processing disorders have difficulty focusing on specific stimuli and reading them correctly. Disability screening can identify auditory processing disorder and other conditions in children who appear to have trouble focusing in class.
Treatment for disorders of auditory attention can vary, depending on the origin of the problem. Sometimes, for example, material may be presented in a more accessible format, like a handout for students. Other people may benefit from therapy sessions where they can develop skills to help them pick out key pieces of auditory information. In some cases, people have trouble paying attention because they have poor hearing, in which case treatment may include hearing aids or sign language education to provide an alternate method of communication that may make the patient feel more comfortable.