Do you find yourself struggling to keep up with conversations in noisier places like restaurants? Is saying “huh” or “what” in response to what others are saying common for you? Or do you ever pretend to hear in social settings to avoid sharing your hearing loss? These are common symptoms of hearing loss and specifically how one can be impacted in noisier settings. Hearing loss reduces a person’s capacity to perceive and process sound which produces a wide range of symptoms. Hearing can be especially difficult in tougher listening environments that are even challenging for people without hearing loss – parties, restaurants, travel hubs like airports, etc. Even with the support of hearing aids, people can experience more of a challenging time hearing in these environments. But recent developments offer great news – there are brain exercises people can practice that increase capacity to hear speech in noisier settings.
Hearing & the Brain
To better understand how performing brain exercises can help to hear, it is useful to know the relationship between hearing and the brain. The ears are not the only body part that is responsible for hearing, the brain plays a major role in how we hear and understand sound. The auditory system is the sensory system that manages to hear and it consists of the following:
- Outer ear: the most visible part of the ear (the outer cartilage) absorbs sound from the environment which travels through the ear canal and lands on the eardrum.
- Middle ear: the vibrations of the eardrum activate the ossicles which are three connected bones in the middle ear. These bones help propel soundwaves further into the inner ear.
- Inner ear: thousands of hair cells in the cochlea help convert soundwaves into electrical signals for the brain.
- Brain: the auditory nerve carries electrical signals from the inner ear to the brain. There are specific areas of the brain that are responsible for language and speech comprehension which receive and process this information. This processing and analysis that happens in the brain are what allows us to understand and make meaning of what we hear.
Hearing loss often occurs when hair cells in the inner ear are damaged. This results in the brain receiving less auditory input, making it challenging to hear and understand what one is hearing. But recent research shows that there are exercises that can improve this and further support hearing.
Link Between Brain Exercises & Improved Hearing
The link between brain exercises and speech-in-noise intelligibility was examined by researchers at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. The study included 24 participants (with an average age of 70) who experienced mild to severe hearing loss and wore hearing aids for an average of 7 years. Participants were assigned to two different groups that spent 3.5 hours per week, for 8 weeks, playing a game.
- Group 1: played a game designed to improve the ability to follow conversations. The game involved paying attention to subtle auditory changes as they moved through the game.
- Group 2: the placebo control group, people in this group also played a game but it was not specifically designed to improve speech intelligibility.
Researchers found that the participants in group 1 correctly identified 25% more words in spoken sentences that were communicated against increasing levels of background noise. This reveals that the people who engaged in the games designed to enhance speech comprehension experienced much more successful in doing so.
How exactly can brain exercises improve speech comprehension? Well, researchers suggest that it is possible to strengthen cognitive capacities. The computerized audio game people played in the study required them to hear changes in sound in order to properly assemble jigsaw puzzles. Consistently doing this over time strengthened what is referred to as neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity describes the brain developing new neural connections which improve one’s ability to perform cognitive functions like detecting and processing speech as well as sound.
Brain Exercises that Enhance Hearing
There are brain exercises designed to improve speech intelligibility that you can access and start playing. This includes:
- LACE: developed by audiologists at the University of California San Francisco, this training program is designed to improve speech comprehension in environments with higher levels of background noise.
- cleARWorks Ears: this training program works on improving speech comprehension and other cognitive skills in louder and quiet environments.
- Angel Sound: this program focuses on identifying sounds and speech through interactive modules.