I can't really formulate it any more lucid than as it is in the title, so.... I'm reading a phonetics text now, but I haven't yet got to the chapter on 'speech perception' so maybe I'll come across at least the terminology in the near future. But I had to ask.

  • It's usually referred to as the 'cocktail party effect' or selective attention. Aug 4, 2012 at 7:21
  • Are you asking how someone can hear their name in a noisy environment when they're listening for it, or are you asking how it is that people hear their name in a noisy environment when they're not listening for it (this latter is the 'cocktail party effect'). @acattle answers the first question, but I had thought you were asking the second. Aug 6, 2012 at 10:36
  • @GastonÜmlaut I'd argue that the learning-algorithm explanation I put forward would explain both variations as the only difference seems to be active vs. passive listening and I don't know of any evidence that they use different perceptive processes. That's why I threw in the "hallucinate" bit (which would presumably be less likely if you are actively listening). Additionally, I'm really disappointed no one has posted a competing hypothesis! I wanted to see multiple opinions!
    – acattle
    Aug 7, 2012 at 18:09
  • I don't think it answers the second question (if that's what's being asked). It's not about perception as such, but attention. If you're engaged in a conversation with one person and hear nothing of numerous background conversations surrounding you, but when your name is mentioned in one of the background conversations you suddenly attend to it, how does that happen? Is some part of your brain constantly listening to all the other conversations around you and alerting you when your name is mentioned? Aug 9, 2012 at 8:30
  • @GastonÜmlaut It's looking like I chose my terminology poorly. When I say "active vs. passive listening" I meant the difference between putting effort into listening (as in a conversation) and listening without conscious effort, respectively. It isn't that people are listening to the background noise so much as the background noise is entering their ears and being processed anyway. If the sound can't be resolved then it is discarded but under my hypothesis certain sounds are more readily heard than others, making them easier to pick out even without conscious effort.
    – acattle
    Aug 10, 2012 at 2:53

1 Answer 1


I read a paper called Loanword adaptation as first-language phological perception by Boersma and Hamann for a Phonology class project last semester. That introduced me to both the idea of a productive perception and the idea of a learning algorithm for OT. I think these two ideas (along with Optimality Theory) may help explain the phenomenon you are investigating.

The assumption in a lot of literature is that perception is completely faithful, i.e. what people perceive is a 1:1 relation of the incoming soundwave. Productive perception says that this isn't true and that people's perceptions are based on their ingrained phonology. The Boersma/Hamann paper I linked earlier uses this idea to say that people intuitively transpose any foreign words into their own phonology during perception, explaining why loanwords are often pronounced differently from their source form (and indeed, from other native words with similar forms, thus either ruling out a production-only based explanation or requiring loanword-specific rules and constraints).

This paper cites a 1997 paper by Boersma called How We Learn Variation, Optionality, and Probability. I have not read this paper in full, so my understanding mostly comes from the summary included in the Boersma/Hamann paper I included above.

Basically, Boersma claims that the constraints (normally used for mapping SR to phonetic form) are bidirectional and that they can be applied during perception as well as production. These constraints are then ranked by probability. For example, consider a cue constraint *[ɛ]/e/. During production this constraint would be understood as "don't produce the phonologic form /e/ as the phonetic form [ɛ]"; during perception as "don't perceive [ɛ] as /e/" (or generically, "[ɛ] is not /e/"). In English representing /e/ as [ɛ] (as opposed to the more faithful [e]) usually does not result in any loss of meaning and thus can be freely violated. These frequent violations would then lead *[ɛ]/e/ to become lowly ranked. Contrast this with French where representing /e/ as [ɛ] does usually lead to a loss of meaning and thus such a constraint would be more heavily used and therefore become higher ranked.

Now to tie it in with your question. Presumably one hears their name very often. So a learning algorithm like the one Boersma proposes would rank the constraints in such a way that one can readily distinguish their name during perception, even if the incoming phonetic form is damaged or has heavy interference (such as in a noisy room). It would also explain why people sometimes hallucinate hearing their name (or other common words) and rarely hallucinate uncommon or arcane words.

Obviously, this is just one possibility but I hope I at least provided some interesting links.

As for what it's called, perhaps selective hearing?

  • i didnt even think of it as a phonological thing, but i guess it would be. i wonder, imagine that you force someone to adopt a different name, such as when transplanting them into a foreign speech community or forcing them to use a novel pseudonym for their day job. i wonder if the estimates for the persons constraint probabilities of that person might be different before and after some time. anyways, much thanks for the papers, they look like good reads.
    – taylor
    Aug 4, 2012 at 15:41
  • @taylor One of the problems with perception as a productive activity is that it heavily blurs the line between phonology and phonetics. Cue constraints themselves are already kind of half in/half out (since they map SR to phonetic form). That's why most people consider perception as unproductive despite evidence to the contrary. As for your idea, if you take Boersma's proposal to it's logical conclusion then that is what you'd expect to see. It would be an interesting, although difficult to control, experiment
    – acattle
    Aug 6, 2012 at 1:43

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