Hearing with our Brain
The ears collect the sound around us and deliver that sound to the brain. Our brain, through various synapses, process that sound so meaning can be given to what is being heard.
Hearing vs. Understanding
Hearing is a complicated science and the structures in our body responsible for hearing are incredibly complex and delicate. Understanding is an even more intricate phenomenon and occurs via synapses in the brain.
Simply put, we don’t “hear” with only our ears, we perceive and assign meaning to sounds with our brains. Our ears connect to our brains via a complex neural network that carries messages collected by our ears to the brain. When we experience hearing loss some of those pathways along that neural network become weaker. Meaning some speech sounds come through loud and clear while others come through distorted. Therefore, many people with hearing loss say, “I can hear fine; I just can’t understand!” This is because not all the pathways get damaged at the same time.
Some people think of hearing loss as someone turning down the volume on the world around them. Hearing loss is less about how loud you hear things and more about how clearly you hear things. Below is an example of how some with normal hearing may hear a sentence and how someone with high frequency hearing loss (the most common type of hearing loss amongst adults) may hear the same sentence.
Normal Hearing: Frank sat by the sea eating a plate of spaghetti
Hearing Loss: ain at by e ee eating a pla o ghetti
Although the volume may appear to be the same to both people, the person with hearing loss is going be missing out on more meaningful information.
However, there’s good news! You can strengthen your neural pathways again to improve speech understanding. You can do this by seeking a diagnosis for your hearing loss and choosing a treatment plan with amplification and auditory training in a timely manner. The sooner your hearing loss is treated the better outcome you will likely have. The longer you wait to address hearing loss, the weaker those pathways may become, and you run the risk of those pathways weaking quicker which is known as auditory deprivation. Therefore, treating your hearing loss as soon as you notice a change is extremely important.
Identifying Hearing Loss
Identifying a hearing loss is the first step to correcting your hearing loss. When identifying a hearing loss, an Audiologist needs to do a comprehensive audiological evaluation which will determine the integrity of your ears, how they are functioning, and where the breakdown is occurring. This is assessed through types of tests that check the functionality of each part of your auditory system while also checking the functionality of your auditory system and how all the parts work together as a whole. Below are a few of the types of services used during a comprehensive audiological evaluation.
- Otoscopy – a visual check of the ear, the canal, the eardrum, and for any ear wax or foreign objects.
- Tympanometry – tests the flexibility and movement of the eardrum to ensure that it is intact and functioning properly. This also tells us if there is any pressure or fluid behind the eardrum.
- Acoustic Reflexes – tests the flexibility of the muscles in the middle ear space to help identify any middle-ear, cochlear, or auditory nerve disorders
- Otoacoustic Emissions – measures the function of the outer hair-cells within the cochlea
- Pure Tones Audiometry – checks the softest level a patient can hear throughout each frequency. This test is done in two parts and determines the severity of someone’s hearing loss and the type of hearing loss they have.
- Speech Testing – tests how well a person can understand speech at various levels to determine their understanding, or processing abilities
Choosing NOT to correct hearing loss
Early detection of hearing loss combined with proper correction of the loss is imperative. Just as with every other muscle in our body, the better shape they are in, the quicker recovery we will experience when faced with injury or illness. When we identify and treat hearing loss early, the brain will be able to cope with the loss with less frustration since our brain does so much of the work when we think about hearing and processing sound. The part of the brain that interprets sound into meaningful speech is also the area of cognition. The longer a patient waits to correct their hearing loss combined with how severe your loss is, is a huge component of their decline of cognitive abilities. Research supports the link between untreated hearing loss and increased risk of dementia. If our brain is working overtime to process speech due to hearing loss, it has less power to use for other functions. Correction of a hearing loss is not instantaneous. Properly re-introducing sounds to your brain, and allowing the brain to strengthen gradually, is a rehabilitative process – one that we are here to help you with.
- Cognitive Decline: Your cognitive health can be directly related to untreated hearing loss. When you deprive your brain of the information it needs, your brain begins to receive less information and must work overtime to keep up. When you have hearing loss, your brain has difficulty identifying and locating sounds, and misses vital speech cues.
- The deprivation of sounds due to hearing loss has been shown to contribute to early onset of memory loss, dementia, or ability to effectively process sounds and communicate with family and friends.
- Reduced Social Interactions: The longer a patient lives with untreated hearing loss, they may notice a withdraw from daily conversation. Navigating conversation with others in noisy environments (restaurants, sporting events, etc.), and family or social gatherings tends to become more difficult. As hearing loss progresses and remains untreated, these situations tend to become increasingly more difficult. Constantly having to ask others to repeat themselves, or the dreaded “huh?” can lead to isolation and social withdrawal.
- Emotional Effects: If a patient waits to address a hearing loss, emotional effects occur that can be frustrating. Working harder in conversations due to untreated hearing loss is exhausting physically and emotionally. Fatigue can lead to stress in conversations, depression from feeling excluded from conversation, and irritability of having to ask others to speak up or repeat themselves.