It is a well-known phenomenon that people with hearing loss struggle, especially in noisy environments. While hearing aids and sound amplification devices might help them hear the TV or participate in one-on-one conversations in quiet places, once they find themselves in a cacophonous airport or loud restaurant, amplifying all the ambient noise is no help. Most often, in fact, it is a hindrance. Counter to intuition, people with hearing aids have been known to remove them in these situations because the amplified noise is overwhelming.
Frequently known as “The Cocktail Party Effect,” this ambient noise problem had been largely attributed to listeners’ inability to isolate individual speaking voices. But new research suggests that in addition to having difficulty with discerning sounds, people with hearing loss might also have a processing problem known as “binaural fusion” that causes distinct sounds to blend together. Researchers found that when different vowel sounds were played into hearing-challenged test subjects’ ears, they blended together into a third vowel sound, preventing test subjects from correctly identifying the sounds played in either of their ears. Varying the pitch or genders of the voices made no difference, indicating that the problem is related to processing, in addition to aural failures.
The study results are encouraging to researchers, who believe that new therapies might be developed to tackle the cocktail party effect problem. In the meantime, innovative technologies like Noopl are also cropping up to help those with hearing loss participate in conversation in loud environments. While it is common for those struggling with their hearing to avoid noisy environments, over time it can lead to social isolation and lower quality of life.
Hearing loss is becoming more common and at younger ages due to our increasing cultural dependence on headphones and earbuds to work, read, and listen to music and podcasts. With better understanding of the cognitive nuances of hearing loss, new treatments and tools will be better able to mitigate its social effects.