Understanding How the Brain Experiences Hearing Loss
If you wear glasses, you’re familiar with the signs that you need a new prescription. The world looks softer, with edges of objects blurring together. The leaves in the trees look like Impressionist paintings. You have difficulty seeing the text on the page when reading.
Hearing loss works a little differently. Imagine that you had 100 eyes that were all seeing different parts of your field of vision, and you were blind in 20 of them. While you seemed to see normally, since your 80 other eyes were functioning, you would actually be missing out entirely on 20% of your field of vision. Because of the way the brain interprets sound, that’s sort of what hearing loss is like. You’re hearing plenty of things, but without realizing it you’re missing out on a significant portion of what’s there.
Human Speech is a Complex Combination of Sounds
Now, while we’re used to thinking of human speech as one thing, it’s actually a complex combination of lots of different sounds across a wide range of the audible frequency spectrum. What’s more, the relationship of these tones changes as the volume of the voice changes, with high frequencies (the first to be affected by hearing loss) becoming even softer in relation to middle frequencies as loudness increases. This means that even if someone is shouting, it might not make it easier for you to understand their words.
To return to our “100 eyes” analogy, let’s say those 20 eyes that aren’t working are responsible for “seeing” the highest frequencies of human speech. So, when you hear someone talking, you think you’re hearing everything they say, when in fact you’re missing out on some crucial consonant cues. While your brain thinks you’re getting the full picture, it still can’t determine what exactly it is “seeing.” This is why many people with hearing loss feel in conversation that they can hear the other person just fine; they just can’t understand them.
This trick that our brains play on us can make it difficult to realize that we’re experiencing hearing loss in the first place, but there are a few signs we can watch out for.
Having Trouble Understanding Speech
As alluded to above, difficulties understanding speech are a major sign of hearing loss, but it can be difficult to determine that hearing loss is the problem. It’s all relative. Does it seem that everyone is mumbling? Do you have trouble understanding the dialogue in movies? Are you always asking to turn the TV or the car radio up, or are you being asked to turn it down? Is talking on the telephone becoming difficult? If you’re answering “yes” to these questions, it’s likely that you’re experiencing hearing loss.
Other People are Noticing Your Hearing Loss
Because of the way our brains can trick us into thinking that we’re hearing more than we are, it is often the case that other people will notice our hearing loss before we notice it ourselves. If people around you are telling you that you are hard of hearing, you don’t need to take their word for it, but don’t disregard them entirely. Get a hearing test and make a reliable determination whether you need hearing aids.
While general fatigue can be a sign of many things, it is indeed also a sign of hearing loss. Straining to hear, to pick conversation out from background noise or to lean more heavily on context clues to understand speech, is a mentally exhausting practice. Because you might not realize this is a result of hearing loss, you might feel that social situations are what makes you tired. This, however, can be the tipping point for some people.
When hearing loss makes it fatiguing to engage, socially, many people will withdraw from social situations and become isolated. This in turn starts to rewire the brain to be less engaged in interpreting the world around them and can sadly result in depression and earlier onset of dementia.
Don’t ignore the possibility of hearing loss! If you suspect even a possibility that you’re having trouble hearing, make an appointment for a hearing test and get treated sooner than later.