The Independent, 28 May 2011

We live in a time when the ability to do more than one thing at once is seen as a virtue. It’s the kind of skill that candidates on The Apprentice like to boast they have, in addition to a total inability to speak in jargon-free sentences or have even a modicum of personal charm. If you can’t multi-task, you might as well wheel your luggage out of Lord Sugar’s office right now, before he blasts you for being a thicko in spite of the fact that you have an MBA in buying top hats for the Savoy and opening a beauty parlour in Birmingham, two of the main skills he is apparently looking for this series.

But new evidence proves what many of us have surely suspected all along: it turns out that very few of us can really concentrate on more than one thing at a time. Give us a good book to read, and we acquire ‘attentional deafness’, also known as selective deafness. As our least-favourite teachers at school were fond of saying, there’s nothing wrong with our hearing, we just aren’t paying attention.

The tests, performed by scientists at University College London, focussed on our capacity to hear a beeping sound when our attention was diverted on a visual puzzle: only two in ten people could hear it. I wonder if the results would be replicated if it was a verbal sound they were listening out for instead of a beep. Tests of my own suggest that the results would be identical: I live with an iPad owner, and owning an iPad is constitutionally the same as losing 30% of your hearing, though not in an obviously measurable way.

iPad and smartphone users don’t appear to be deaf, because they answer questions and respond exactly as they would if they were listening. Yet moments after they have seemingly agreed on a trip to the pictures, they ask you what you’re doing later, and you realise that you have been talking to a hologram, and that the real person was embroiled in a game of Angry Birds, or looking at an interactive map of the solar system, while drawing hearts on a picture of Steve Jobs.

But perhaps our attentional deafness is dependent on the exact nature of the words we don’t hear. I, for example, am literally incapable of hearing the phrase, ‘Does the dishwasher need emptying?’ even if I am sitting in an empty room holding an ear trumpet to one side of my head. I can’t help it: my mind is on higher things. And when I say ‘higher’, I of course mean ‘other’.

But when repeated phrases are used in my hearing, I can’t concentrate on anything else. The phrase, ‘The train now approaching Platform 1…’ is enough to leave me unable to read, write, think or do anything other than nurture a deep and unforgiving hatred of the train and all who are on it. Lucky I live next to a station, or that might never have been discovered. And even luckier that they’ve now turned the announcements down, just moments before I chewed off my own arm.

So I envy those who can concentrate on writing and thinking when they’re bombarded by sound. It must be incredibly liberating in a world which is full of traffic, sirens, car alarms and the rest, not to mind noise, but to welcome it as simply part of the urban landscape.

Although perhaps there are limits: a schoolgirl in Scotland has this week won the right to listen to music during her exams, because apparently, she can’t concentrate without it. This strikes me as a slightly invented disorder – surely learning to concentrate in environments you don’t choose is part of what school should prepare us for? I wouldn’t have chosen to sit my exams in a freezing hall, but now I can write while wearing three cardigans and gloves, which will serve me well if I ever need to make notes in the Arctic. I bet it’s lovely and quiet there.