Cell Phone Talkers Annoy Our Brain

Cell phone radiation may damage our bones and cause brain cancer, but those are tomorrow’s problems, today’s is much more serious. Cell phone talkers are annoying. Why is it that a man talking on a cell phone at the table next to you is so much more bothersome than the couple having a conversation to your other side? According to a recent study conducted by Cornell University, our brains can’t help but pay more attention when we hear only one side of a conversation.

Whether you’re shopping, riding the train, or busy at work, you’re bound to encounter people yapping on their phones.  In fact, hearing one side of a conversation is so commonplace now that experts have named this phenomenon a “halfalogue.”  Researchers hoped to find whether these halfalogues were actually as distracting as they seemed.

During the experiment, 24 participants completed computer tasks that required a concentration that is similar to what is necessary while driving. While the subjects completed the tests, three types of speech played in the background: a dialogue, a monologue, and a halfalogue. Throughout, the participants were instructed to ignore the noise and stay focused on the task at hand.

While the subjects were easily able to tune out the monologues and dialogues, they showed a significant decrease in concentration while overhearing a halfalogue.  The researchers attribute this finding to the ability of the brain to respond to the predictability of things. In essence, the brain is working harder when processing a halfalogue because it is trying to fill in the missing pieces. However, when two people are heard talking, the brain processes the information as predictable, thus usually ignoring it.

Subsequently, researchers performed a second experiment a new set of 17 participants. Though the test was almost identical to the first, this time all of the speeches were audibly manipulated to be indecipherable. Regardless of whether it was an unintelligible dialogue, monologue, or halfalogue, the results showed all participants could tune out the gibberish. From this data, the researchers, believe that overheard conversations need to be comprehensible for the brain to be distracted by issues of predictability.

Finally, we have an explanation as to why a nearby stranger’s phone conversation can drive us up the wall.  Our brains are working extra hard to fill in the missing pieces, effort it wouldn’t use if both sides of the conversation could be overheard. Who wants to overhear one-way gossip? We want all the gory details.

While it may be impossible to convince other people to stop their conversations for the sake our sanity, we can use this knowledge to be more courteous to others by refining our own cell phone etiquette.

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