Leisure: Party Line

The Tower of Babel had nothing on the modern cocktail party, whose disparate clatter and chatter has long fascinated linguists, novelists, sociologists and sound engineers—as well as the imbibers. Unconsciously, every cocktail-partygoer performs an unusual feat as he sips his gin amid the din: while carrying on his own dazzling conversation, he is able simultaneously to monitor the surrounding babble for such important items as the sound of his own name or a verbal pass at a lady friend. How does the human organism perform these intellectual gymnastics? Fascinated by what they call "the cocktail-party problem," two British scientists...

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