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March 21, 2008

Strange But True!

Q. What's the trick to cutting out background noise while on your cell phone in a loud and crowded place? No, sticking a finger in your other ear won't do it.

A. Surprisingly, the way to hear better is to cover the mouthpiece. Though you'll hear just as much noise around you, you'll be able to hear the caller better, say Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang in “Welcome to Your Brain.” The human brain, it turns out, is a marvel at picking out the voice you want to hear from a host of others — the “cocktail party effect.” But the phone (cell or not) makes this harder by feeding sounds from the room you're in through the circuitry and mixing them with the signal coming from the other phone. So now you've got the voice plus distorted room noise coming into one ear plus the room noise coming into the other. This is worse than hearing at a cocktail party because both the caller's transmitted voice and the room noise are tinny and mixed together. Covering the mouthpiece can stop the mixing muddle and recreate the live cocktail party situation. “Try it. It works!”

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