Selective Hearing: Humanity’s Secret Weapon

Commissioned by Mimi Hearing Technologies, March, 2018. View article on website here.

Sitting in a cramped cafe, you notice your significant other has gone eerily quiet. “Everything alright?” you ask with bated breath. “Shhhh!” they reply, “I’m eavesdropping on a juicy conversation, just keep talking so they don’t catch on.”

If this scene seems familiar it’s because in some shape or form we’ve all lived it. Selective hearing is an often unspoken, but a borderline superhero-like trait of humanity. We possess a devilishly good ability to dull our senses to what’s happening right in front of us, in favor of listening to what tantalizing talk grabs our attention in the background.

This ability was coined as “the cocktail party effect” by the British scientist, Colin Cherry, in the 1950’s. Cherry noticed that people can recognize their name being uttered when they are currently speaking with another subject, even at a crowded, noisy party – or in the case of Cheery at the fruit section of his local supermarket, no doubt. The phenomenon is particularly interesting for research in hearing loss, and hearing aid technology as the ability to focus in on certain sounds above others all but dissipates as hearing becomes impaired.

Evolutionarily Speaking, Evolutionarily Hearing

The brain prioritizes sounds which are deemed to be more significant to you subjectively. For example, evolutionarily speaking, if during a polite conversation with a new mother in law, your ancestor overheard their name being mentioned by a love rival, followed by “well, he’s not my idea of ideal, but I suppose there’s always the axe if we need it” – it is no wonder why a brain that prioritizes certain sounds above others would be advantageous. As the attention of the brain drains energy, the subject who uses his brain’s resources cleverly and sparingly has better chances of retaining energy and being more attentive to threats or opportunities as they arise over a longer time.

Hearing, Speaking… Ignoring

Though there is a commonly held belief that women are more capable of multi-tasking than men, research in this topic suggests that they are just as terrible as each other. Once the attention of a person has been stolen, whether it be by juicy conversation in the background, a possible threat, or even your Facebook newsfeed, the speaker directly in front of you is all but completely drowned out. Only once they utter your name, or trigger your attention by a swift but eloquent drop kicking of your smartphone into the nearest lake, will they have your undivided attention once more.

Vivienne Michael, Chief Executive of Deafness Research UK, has been researching selective hearing with the hope “for improving not just the performance of implants and hearing aids, but the lives of people with hearing disabilities everywhere”. His research has found that the cocktail effect is problematic, particularly for those with one functional ear, and one ear affected by hearing loss. The background of a noisy party, in such cases, cannot be easily dampened out by the brain in favor of focusing in on a certain conversation or sound. The result is an almost dizzying effect wherein the subject is unable to differentiate between sounds, and is instead bombarded with a wall of chatter that cannot be deciphered with ease. Michael believes, as a result, “the auditory system in the brain mix and match sounds from different ears, and then filter out the unwanted noise”. Michael is hopeful that future research will “match the electronic signals of a cochlear (the inner ear) implant with the brain’s requirements for listening” in a noisy environment.

The Future of Hearing

Companies such as Mimi Hearing Technologies, are dedicated to keeping up with the latest and greatest of research in hearing loss. You can take a test here to check how your hearing is holding up, and consider your options as a result. If for example, you’ve noticed your left hear has started to lose its vigor somewhat, and you’re not about to give up on cocktail parties just yet, the answer could be as simple as an ear plug in the weaker ear. Mimi can personalize the external sounds of the world to suit your individual needs. With the advances of smartphones and the digitalization of the hearing aid market, the future of hearing is clearer than ever.

So next time a loved one shushes you in order to eavesdrop on a conversation, don’t be too offended. Simply pop in an ear plug, and soak in the gossip. Your eavesdropping ancestors would be proud.

Commissioned by Mimi Hearing Technologies, 2017. View article on website here.

The Future of Hearing Well

Commissioned by Mimi Hearing Technologies, 2017. View article on website here.

Do you have noisy neighbors, live in a bustling city, near an airport or motorway? Has the ringing in your ear stifled your ability to enjoy a good night’s sleep? Are you worried about having to wear a hearing aid in your later years? You are?! Sorry to hear that, that’s a real shame.

Ahem.

… oh, but don’t worry too much! Here’s a handy list of some of the interesting developments happening today in the fight against noise pollution, a trick to prevent hearing losses’ onset in later years, and even a potential cure for hearing loss altogether.

Rest in the City

A common complaint of residents around the world’s noisy, sleepless cities is, exactly that, sleeplessness due to thin walls and neighbors who save all their laughing, dj sets and furniture rearranging for the wee hours of the morn. Our Hearing Index was developed after analyzing the hearing tests of over 1 million app users throughout the world. Combining this information with noise pollution data from the World Health Organization as well as SINTEF, a leading Norway based research organization on the topic, a clear picture emerges of how different cities are affected by noise pollution.

Delhi and Cairo rank among the worst, while Zurich is the best for silent streets, and, consequently, undisturbed sleeps.  The very noisiest urban centre is a Chinese city called Guangzhou. Unfortunately with China’s recent economic boom a few undesirable noisy side effects have arisen along with the skyscrapers now common throughout the state. Construction is noisy business, but a necessary evil of any growing economy. Hong Kong, for example, has a high population density, a thriving economy and many restless sleepers as a result. To cope with the demand for housing it is becoming more and more common for the city’s apartment blocks to use one-inch gypsum boards as walls between neighbors. These “walls” cut down costs in construction along with rent price, however are disastrous for damping sound.

Thankfully, there’s still hope for both peaceful sleep and a trendy flat in a metropolis of your choosing.  Zhiyu Yang, professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, has been working with “locally resonant acoustic materials” which is fancy-speak for sound deterring crystal like substances which can be used in construction of walls. This material came to be in the year 2000, and now Zhiyu Yang claims to be “on the verge of large-scale commercialization of products [using this material] that could fundamentally change the noise abatement industry”.  Essentially, panels can be places within structures that dampen sounds ability to pervade walls considerably. Yang is convinced the material will be instrumental in the reducing noise invading your future home “because of their light weight, compactness, efficiency and affordability”. The effect of these materials, together with a standard wall, is a reduction of noise by a whopping 40 decibels.

What You Eat, What You Hear

Age related hearing loss, or presbycusis, affects well over half of people in their seventies and a growing number of relatively younger people are at risk. However, paying attention to what you eat can actually increase your chances of hearing better throughout your whole life. Foods which are rich in potassium such as bananas, potatoes, tomatoes and dairy are great for staving off presbycusis as the mineral helps regulate the amount of fluid flowing throughout the body. Fluid in the inner ear is essential for hearing, but as potassium levels naturally decline in the body’s later years, the fluid levels in the ear do too. Eating more of the aforementioned foods combats this affect, by increasing the fluid levels in the blood and thereby in the inner ear.

recent study suggests that folic acid can help  avoid presbycusis’s onset somewhat, too. Folic acid is known to be good for the body’s circulation and for new cell growth. This helps in hearing as the tiny hair cells within the inner ear necessitate good circulation, as well as folic acid in their formation. To avail of this helpful, all round charmer of a mineral all you have to do is eat organs.

… okay, don’t fret, if organ meat doesn’t sound immensely appetising you can also eat spinach, broccoli and asparagus to get your folic acid fix.

Of Mice and Men: A Cure For Hearing Loss?

A collaboration of researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, MIT, and Massachusetts Eye and Ear announced this year that a cure for sensorineural hearing loss may be a real possibility. Sensorineural hearing loss was up until this year thought to be a somewhat of a hopeless case. This type of hearing damage occurs when the tiny cells within the ear degrade to such an extent they can no longer pick up certain frequencies. How these hair cells work was discussed in detail here (link), but essentially all humans are born with approximately 15,000 hair cells in the inner ear. These cells communicate to the brain that certain frequencies of sound have entered the ear canal and reached the inner ear. However, once damaged, either by over exposure to loud noise or by aging, the damage was thought to be irreversible… until now!

Hair cells of mice have been induced to grow in a lab dish through a combination of drugs the researchers used. How the drugs work is by stimulating stem cells within the inner ear which “expands the population of progenitor cells (supporting cells)” which then turn into fresh new hair cells which can theoretically become a new for cure hearing loss. The first human trials are set to take place in 2018.

In conclusion, it is safe to say the future of hearing is nothing to lose any sleep over. And in the meantime, if you want to test your own hearing, we’ll leave this here.