You Don’t Know What You’re Missing While You’re Missing It

Ever wondered why people who have cataract surgery are so surprised at the brightness of colors and the crispness of images following corrective surgery?  Because we see with our brains, not our eyes. The same is true when high-pitch hearing loss is corrected. Our surrounding sounds become brighter and richer again.

Our brains are remarkably plastic throughout our entire lives, which is to say they can adapt to changes in input stimulation.  A vast oversimplification of this process is to liken it to weight training.  The muscles you exercise get bigger while those you don’t use get smaller.  Our sensory perception adapts to the world as our brains experience it, which isn’t always how it really is.  Cataracts develop so slowly that we’re largely unaware of their effects until they’re removed.  Hearing loss is like this also (and if you’re a human being you’re going to acquire hearing loss).  We typically lose our high-pitch hearing sensitivity first, which results in a dulling of sound but not much of a reduction in the loudness of sound.  

Because of this, and the fact that the progression is so slow, we’re usually unaware of how poor our hearing sensitivity has become until someone points it out to us.  We then typically respond with “No, no – if you’d only speak more clearly and look at me when you talk I could hear you just fine!”  Well guess what?  In most of these situations it’s the high-pitch hearing loss causing the poor word understanding, not the quality of the talker’s voice.

How does high-pitch hearing loss do this?  Well, our voices are comprised of two main elements: vowels and consonants.  Vowels are made with our vocal ‘chords’ and they carry the loudness and character of our voices.  Consonants are made in our oral cavity and are the sounds necessary for word discrimination, but unlike vowels consonants are incredibly soft sounds.  Don’t believe me?  Say something out loud and as you’re doing so turn off your vowel sounds.  You are now whispering.  Yes, even during normal conversational-level speech our consonant sounds are no louder than a whisper – because that’s what they are.  As such, it doesn’t take much change in our high-pitch hearing sensitivity to make whispered-level sounds inaudible – and talking louder won’t help!  You can’t whisper loudly, you can only raise the amplitude of your vowel sounds, which won’t improve speech clarity it just annoys the hearing-impaired listener.

This is where hearing instruments excel.  They can amplify consonants giving your brain more, and better, auditory information to work with.  Which leads me back to my original statement “You don’t know what you’re missing while you’re missing it.”