How Many Voices Can You Perceive at a Time? — the “Cocktail Party Effect”

Recent research shows that where most of us hear noise, the din of a lot of people speaking at once, some people, in this case musicians, can pick out a single voice and the overall harmonic.  Researchers call this the “cocktail party effect,” where lots of people are speaking loudly at the same time, making it hard to hear anything.  That most of us cannot pick out what one voice is saying in the noise of a lot of loud conversation doesn’t mean that nobody can.  Maybe it is a matter of intention and training; the desire to hear different voices and the practice at doing so.  In this case, the musicians need to be able to pick out specific voices or instruments in the mix, and they have a lot of practice doing so.  Intention and practice.

Similarly, Professor Ellen Langer finds that more mindful people are able to notice new perspectives, that someone else brings a different perspective.  In the noise of a conversation, one can perceive that somebody else has a unique perspective to contribute.  And, one can get better at doing this over time.  Intention and practice.

My colleagues and I work with many groups that are taking on very complex social issues.  To address these complex issues, in a resilient way, collaborative processes often require many stakeholder groups to contribute their unique gifts and perspectives.  They are part of the problem and part of the solution, so they need to be involved.  And, they bring quite different perspectives, by definition, of the issue and what they can contribute to the shared intention.  Like with the “cocktail party effect” research with musicians, I find that while most people find it difficult to perceive and value different perspectives in complex social issues, some people can do this.  They have the intention and the practice.  Our ecosynomic processes for working with complex social issues support people in building the capacity to do this, both the intention and the practice–learning how to listen for other unique voices and the practice in doing so.  I see that this is a required skill for addressing complex social issues, a skill we can learn from the example of the musicians.

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