Arousing Performance

Study participants heard various sounds before completing either an easy (left) or difficult (right) visual search task to find the T amidst the other shapes.

Erkin Asutay

The world around us constantly bombards our ears with sound waves, carrying information that may be relevant to how we should direct our visual attention. A recent study offers some novel insights into this sound-sight nexus. For the first time, research has demonstrated that the emotional impact of what we hear can influence our visual attention and visual search efficiency. 

Researchers at Linköping University in Sweden played a series of noises before study participants engaged in unrelated visual search exercises on a computer screen. The noises ranged from emotionally stimulating fire alarms and dog growls to neutral, less arousing hen clucks and the whirring of a microwave oven. The visual search task involved locating a randomly-oriented T amidst either a set of Os (easy) or Ls (difficult). 

As expected, participants completed the easy searches more quickly than the difficult searches. More notably, playing sounds just before the search task also improved search performance—but only when the sounds happened to be of an emotionally arousing or alert-triggering nature, and only for the difficult searches. Sounds that participants rated as being relatively neutral did not speed up search performance, and performance on the easy searches did not interact with the emotional nature of the sounds. 

“Our hearing functions like an alarm system,” says Erkin Asutay, a postdoctoral fellow who co-wrote the paper with professor Daniel Västfjäll. “The auditory system can provide signals for attention-shifts to guide the visual system.” As a result, Asutay says, “one can argue that emotional sounds could prime visual information processing.”

The findings suggest that auditorily perceived peril, whether from human-created sirens or from predators, boosts our visual systems, perhaps to aid in survival. Asutay notes, however, that only simple tasks, like the one in the study, likely benefit from this connection. Emotionally-stirring sounds could ultimately make complex situations requiring multi-tasking and concentration more difficult. Plus, if a sound becomes overwhelmingly loud, any attention and visual processing gain could be lost from the sound inciting too charged a response. “If arousal increases further after a certain point,” Asutay says, “then it becomes detrimental to task performance.” (Scientific Reports)