What is the word for the phenomenon where your brain blocks out background sounds, because they are constant?

For example when you don't hear the air conditioning whirring away until it stops.

  • We're really trying to avoid using this site for "single word requests." If you have a particularly interesting problem to solve, all we ask is that you put a bit of effort and research into the question. See: meta.english.stackexchange.com/questions/1654/… or meta.english.stackexchange.com/questions/2160/… Commented Nov 16, 2011 at 15:14
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    @Robert Cartaino I resent the suggestion that I have not made any effort to research the question- it was not an easy word to find. Where is the supposed "single link to a standard internet reference source" that is the reason the question is closed.
    – Urbycoz
    Commented Nov 16, 2011 at 16:35
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    @RobertCartaino, I could maybe, if I try really really hard, understand closing this as "not a real question". (I would disagree, but it'd just be my opinion against yours.) However, there is no way on God's green earth that this qualifies as a general reference question. Like the OP said: where's the single link to a standard reference that answers this?
    – Marthaª
    Commented Nov 16, 2011 at 16:39
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    I did some searches earlier, on the question in the title and variations, and habituation does not come up on the first two pages of Google. I knew the answer because I'm a psychology grad. I looked up the meaning of the word so I could copy paste after the fact. I am voting to reopen. Commented Nov 16, 2011 at 19:28

7 Answers 7


The word used in psychology for becoming used to a stimulus is habituation

Habituation is a decrease in response to a stimulus after repeated presentations. For example, a novel sound in your environment, such as a new ring tone, may initially draw your attention or even become distracting. After you become accustomed to this sound, you pay less attention to the noise and your response to the sound will diminish. This diminished response is habituation.

It is not limited to sounds (it covers all the senses) but it is involuntary.

Another possibility is desensitise

to make somebody/something less aware of something, especially a problem or something bad, by making them become used to it

Although it does often come with negative connotations, you could use it in a neutral context and be understood.

  • YES. "Habituation" is the word I was searching for. Thanks!
    – Urbycoz
    Commented Nov 16, 2011 at 11:53

It's an idiom, "tuning out". He is "tuning out" the noise so he can concentrate on his studies.

For example, when I talk he "tunes me out." Though I am talking to him, he never hears a word I say.

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    But this implies the notion that he intentionally tunes someone out and not entirely unconscious?
    – xenon
    Commented Nov 16, 2011 at 11:03
  • @xEnOn: You can tune a noise out because it's constant and stable and you can get used to it. I'm not sure this happens 100% unconsciously.
    – Irene
    Commented Nov 16, 2011 at 11:42
  • @Irene: I think to a considerable extent "tuning out" must be subconscious - it's very difficult to consciously concentrate on ignoring something. The verb "to tune" usually implies some kind of volitional act, but the actual phenomenon pre-exists, and thus can't be "defined" by the particular idiomatic expression we use for it. Which would have been the antonym for resonate if we had a common word for that, but we don't. Commented Nov 16, 2011 at 12:04

Maybe selective hearing?

When someone is engrossed in their smartphone and not noticing anything, then they may have inattentional blindness. Is this getting closer?

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    Ah, yes... selective hearing. A skill every husband should develop...
    – CJM
    Commented Nov 16, 2011 at 9:02
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    I think "selective hearing" tends to describe a conscious blocking out of sounds.
    – Urbycoz
    Commented Nov 16, 2011 at 10:13
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    @CJM: As well as selective talking (knowing when to keep quiet). Commented Nov 16, 2011 at 12:18

Similarly, the phrase used to describe these sounds which most people don't hear is white noise.

Ex. The white noise from the television helped her fall asleep.

White noise is sometimes used for subliminal messaging in commercials, movies, etc... but this is illegal in most countries including Canada and the USA.


Not an answer but reminds me of the Bowery El phenomenon. http://www.radford.edu/~jsking/Orienting%20Response.doc


Focus. When you are concentrating intently on something, the parts of your brain that are also used for auditory signal processing sound will get used for pattern recognition in what you're looking at. It varies between people and the sexes, but easily testable.


Filtering-sensory or auditory.

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