What You Hear Affects What You See

There are a lot of different models of attention, and the differences between them can be complex and subtle. Most of them, however, treat attention as a limited and expendable resource — you can only pay attention to so many things for so long a time. Is attention really in short supply?

Attention is usually not modality specific: For example, if you’re making a lot of effort paying attention to something that you’re seeing, you’re not likely to be able allocate attention to an acoustic cue as well. In short, there isn’t a store of visual attention, a separate store of aural attention, another one for tactile attention, and so on. There’s just one central store of attention.

Recent evidence has also led many researchers believe that rhythms entrain the attentional system so that it increases the amount of attention allocated at certain temporal locations. For example, if you see a blinking light, neural oscillations will synchronize with the rhythm of the blinking, so that you’re paying more attention at the points when the light is likely to be on.

A study published earlier this year used a fascinating methodology to determine whether or not this entrainment is cross-modal. Participants heard a tone played at regular or irregular intervals for a specified amount of time. At the end, a dot would appear in one of the four corners of a screen (the appearance of the dot was either synchronized with the final tone in the series, played earlier than the tone, or played later than the tone) and the participants would look at it. The researchers measured how long it took the participants to fixate on the dot.

Interestingly, participants were significantly faster to fixate on the dot when it was synchronized with the final tone than when it was not, suggesting that the visual attentional system was entrained by the aural tone series. When the experimenters omitted the final tone, the results remained the same, proving that it wasn’t the final tone itself that speeded up fixation, but the rhythm that preceded it.

Another important note is that participants weren’t directed to attend to the auditory tones. In fact, they weren’t told anything about them at all, suggesting that the entrainment of the attentional system is automatic and unconscious.

Although they may seem intuitively obvious, these findings lend additional insight into how attention works, and give major support to the idea that attention is a limited resource that is shared between different perceptual modalities, and provides proof that entrainment developed through one modality is accessed by other modalities.

Research on neural oscillation has been quite fruitful recently, and this is another example of how this is at the core of processes that we take for granted, like rhythmic attentional entrainment and many other temporal processes in the brain. Exactly how this low-level process is integrated into higher-level systems, like time-keeping and attention, is likely to see a lot more research in the near future.


Miller JE, Carlson LA, & McAuley JD (2013). When what you hear influences when you see: listening to an auditory rhythm influences the temporal allocation of visual attention. Psychological science, 24 (1), 11-8 PMID: 23160202

Image via Aleksander1 / Shutterstock.

  • Lea

    This seems pretty obvious to me, the more senses you have fixated on something the more ‘accurate’ it’s going to be.

  • Why is it that women seem to have better focus, attention, and can concentrate on more than one task at a time, whereas men usually only focus on one thing at a time?

  • Well that explains a lot of things then. I’ve noticed that it does get difficult to pay attention to multiple things at the same time. Sometimes I’d be watching something and if someone starts talking to me, I don’t always hear what they said.

  • This is really informative. That explains it all. There’s only one central store of attention. How about those people with ADHD? How do they react with these kind of test? I’m just curious.

    • Unfortunately, I haven’t read anything about how people with attentional disorders behave in experiments such as this. However, I did hear Susan Gathercole speak recently, and she does a lot of work with executive function and attentional disorders. Interestingly, she pointed out in her talk that kids with ADHD exhibit pretty classic symptoms of low working memory (WM), which might be one of the underlying causes of attentional disorders.

      Both WM and attention are closely related to executive function, so it’s quite possible that kids with ADHD might respond differently in experiments like this one. I’ll keep my eye out for anything on the topic.

      Thanks for the great question!

  • This come up a lot in my line of work. The more senses used geerally increases the leaning. Educators like me who are linking neuroscience research to what the kids are taught in schools. My book ‘The Owner’s Guide to the Teenage Brain’ leans heavily on the amazing work neuroscientists are doing. My first question is always what does this new science tell us about how the brain works and what should we be telling teenagers?
    Derek Pugh

    • Wow, three spelling mistakes in my first sentence. Clearly too many interruptions. DP

  • It’s a bit strange, and even unbelievable. How could this happen. Hear sth and then affect how you see things.

  • It makes perfect sense, but why are women better equipped to multi-task than men. It answers why I can’t hear a thing that’s going on around me when I’m concentrating on something. Are we inferior to women?..or do we make up for our inability to perform multiple tasks efficiently?

  • I know some women who are very poor at multi-tasking and can only focus on one thing at a time, so I don’t think every woman is able to handle multi-tasking more than men. I also know men who are very good multi-taskers. I know sometimes people make that generalization, but from what I’ve seen so far I don’t feel it’s completely true.

  • I agree, many people can do multi tasking easily, I do not see any difference between men or women doing it, only women are hard workers when it comes to serious tasks they do more, housekeeping, baby sitting, washing and cleaning, they have great Brain and intelligence. But do they get Alzheimer’s more than men? it was interesting to know.

Daniel Albright, MA, PhD (c)

Daniel Albright, MA, is a PhD student at the University of Reading, studying the lateralization of linguistically mediated event perception. He received his masters in linguistics from the University of Colorado-Boulder. Get in touch with him at www.dannalbright.com or on Twitter at @dann_albright.

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