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.

THE IMPACT OF MUSIC ON EMOTION

Originally commission by Mimi-Hearing-Technologies, 2018

Without a word of French, somehow I still dither on the brink of complete blubbering mess every time I listen to Jacque Brel’s “ne me quitte pas”. The Francophone, chanson singer lays claim to a wide breath of musical influence, with Nina Simone and David Bowie noting him as a key inspiration to their work. The question arises, why does this Belgian born, strange looking, gap toothed singer move me or any Anglophone alike so much? The answer I’ve come to suspect is that some music is like a language all onto itself. Unlike spoken languages, such music operates solely as an emotional dialogue where one emotion expressed brings about a counter emotional affect in the listener. Here, I’ll examine music’s impact on the full emotional spectrum of the human condition. Sex may sell, and, as such, usurp the charts for the most part, but, as we’ll see, music can stir even the darkest, and more subtle crevasses of the our minds.

Music and Murder

Neil Young and the Beach Boys were noted fans of the failed singer, Charles Manson – that is, until he led his “family” to commit an infamous series of murders in Hollywood in the summer of 1969. The story is as dark and depressing as they come, effectively killing the hippy era of the sixties along with the targets of their heinous crimes. Strangely, the cult accredited the Beatles’ music as the true culprit for their actions. The Manson family stated that the Beatles spoke to them via such songs as Blackbird and Helter Skelter, suggesting the group left notes in cryptic lyrics for them to target celebrities and bring about racial war, revolution. This was a clear case of drug-fueled madness, driven by a charismatic, dangerous, and deeply disturbed leader – but, this example also serves to show the power of music’s influence. It can help turn peace loving hippies into aggressive, killing criminals the wrong hands strike a chord.

Sound and Early Development

Leaving lyrics aside, music still manages to hold such sway over our feelings, via emotional responses, as it simply demands our attention more than most other sensations. Unlike taste or smell it’s incredibly difficult to cut off the experience of external sound, completely. If you manage it, by use of ear plugs or, failing that, jamming your fingers in your ears, sound still won’t fully dissipate. Rather, like placing a seashell to your ear, you’re presented with everlasting ocean of sound – namely, the inner workings of the human body. The flow and swirl of the body’s blood, heart beat, pulse and breath calms the mind. A recent study published in American Scientific suggests that the sounds of the inner body could hark the mind back to the earliest stages of hearing development within the womb. With help of a tiny waterproof microphone the researching scientist, Sheila Woodward, demonstrated that the “rhythmic sound of blood coursing through the uterine artery” is heard within the womb, adding “nature allows us to evolve with rhythm all around us”. When external music is played, such as Bach or the mother singing a lullaby the result “is like listening to music underwater”. What’s more, the effect of a mother listening to calming music brings about a similar easing of the infant’s heart rate. The study suggests that the fetus is not only able to hear – albeit distorted or muffled – sound in the womb, but takes cues from the mother’s reactions as how to feel relative to these sounds – growing calmer or more excited as a result.

Tone and Reaction

Perhaps the most poignant example of music’s ability to encapsulate emotion, comes from the bizarre mishmash of NASA scientists and delta blues players. When NASA sent their Voyager probe into space in 1977, researchers such as Carl Sagan put together a golden vinyl record to express a variety of different sounds representative of the human race – in case any hipster extra-terrestrials happened across it with a handy vinyl player. “Dark was the night, cold was the ground”, a song made up of a loan moaning voice accompanied by a single glass bottle dragged along a low tuned guitar played by Blind Willie Johnson, made the cut. The song was chosen as it was said effectively convey the feeling of loneliness. Hearing the song, the choice is starkly effective as you can’t help but feel affected. The ache, moan and pain of the 1920’s bluesman are blatant, and soul-shatteringly beautiful. The vast complexity of humanity’s emotional arch are there plain as day and rich with colour – now floating outside the solar system in dark empty space.

It is true that not all music or art gives rise to an emotive response, and, similarly, aliens, sociopaths and emotionally crippled fungi alike may appreciate expressions of humanity on different levels. However music and art, at their best, are reflections of us. What I find comforting about an emotional response to the music of a bottle being dragged across an old guitar, or the faltering voice of a French language performer aching and breaking with longing, is that music and art, at their best, need no interpretation. Great music simply needs to be heard to be understood. An emotional response to music is a sign this effect has been achieved. All art, then, may just be a reminder that others feel it, too.

KURFÜRSTENSTRASSE: LIVING ON BERLIN’S RED LIGHT DISTRICT

Originally commission by Berlin Logs, 2015

There’s nothing pleasant about moving house. Lugging hefty mattresses onto cramped, ill-equipped buses is bad enough, but that all-knowing Germanic glare adds a whole new dimension to the trauma. All you can do is hang onto the belief that it’ll all be worthwhile once you’ve arrived, sighed and then settled. Today, however, I question this sentiment as I recall how I ended up a new tenant on the infamous Kurfürstenstraße.

It was a sweltering May morning, and I was ten minutes early for my 10am flat interview. Quite pleased with the fact I’d managed to find the place, I decided to explore. I had traveled a staggering ten paces before someone grabbed my arm, muttering something I couldn’t quite catch, prompting me to rattle off my catchphrase, “Entschuldigung, mein Deutsch ist Nicht so gut.” The striking blonde thought for a moment, before retrieving the elusive word she was searching for, “Blowjob?”

You could say the usual small talk and appliance demonstrations inclusive of a WG apartment-viewing were somewhat hindered by the scantily clad elephant in the room. I had to say something. “Lot of, eh, prostitutes out there …” was all I could muster. The law student showing me around went on to tell me how he’s lived in the area for six years, and not one day has gone by where he hasn’t been the target of solicitation. Suddenly, the very reasonable renting price made a lot more sense. Despite a minor internal dialogue in which I considered the rare possibility of my older relatives coming for a surprise (and likely traumatizing) visit—I decided to accept his offer.

Nights, not surprisingly, are the worst. Kurfürstenstraße is carpeted by all manner of prostitutes – typically wearing luminous colors, tiny tops, and matching bottoms, and demonstrating a “hands-on” approach to salesmanship. My former housemate, a native Berliner, was actually amazed by the lack of leather, stating these girls lacked the certain “professional” air of their Oranienburger Straße counterparts. She had a point. There’s a certain creeping chaos to this street, which is unnerving, but really only at first.

On Kurfürstenstraße I drink in every conversation I happen upon, every seat offered to weary workers, every familiar look. Occasionally it feels like a close-knit community. More often it seems a place of strained business partnerships. What remains consistent, though, is the tone of the place: the BMWs which slow to a stop, the clinical conversations, the assortment of miserable characters dotting the street. All of it adds up to a perpetual grey.  Seeing it all unravel daily in front of you, you can’t help but wonder how everyone ended up here. The would-be lawyer, six years here. The girls whistling at good prospects. The Imbiss worker who keeps everyone well-fed. The shop owners who give up their seats for tired heels. And me.

Then I remember, at least in my case, all I had to do was accept an offer.

SINGING FOR YOUR SUPPER: BUSKING IN BERLIN

Originally commission by Berlin Logs, 2015

There comes a stage in every man’s life when he’s faced with a difficult employment related dilemma. Clutching a heavy guitar case, I gazed over the alcohol section of one of the more frugal supermarkets in Berlin contemplating my own. “One or two bottles? Sternberg or the cheapest Spanishesque brand?” The Roma band who play at the same Ubahn station as I do tend to go for Sternys, but I’m not at their level just yet. I need to raise ten euro just to break zero, as I’m indebted to friends after the costly May Day festivities of the weekend before. Insistent I need at least a little Dutch courage, or perhaps Spanish company, I grab two 28c beers and set out toward Eisenacher to busk.

Unemployment in Berlin is common enough to come with its own set of myths and misinformation. Jobcentres are the last resort of the most wanting, desperate expatriate. Without good German, or without good help, you’re without hope facing the damning tone of the over-worked, begrudging government employees. Groups such as Basta in Wedding offer free help and insight for those who are in need, regardless of their background or situation.  They’ll come along to Jobcentres demanding their voices are heard, and your needs are met- just waiting for the inevitable, “maybe, they should just return to their home country to seek work”, before they release hell upon the unsuspecting, supposed “xenophobe” behind the glass screen.

Having successfully paid my rent for the following month, I felt the stress levels involved in attempting to file for benefit, while awaiting another job, were too high to truly consider the option seriously. Thankfully, I spent one summer before in Galway, Ireland, living off a busker’s budget, so I remembered the protocol- and, thankfully, a lot of the songs. Berliners differ from Irish crowds in as much as they don’t seem to care whether or not they know a song before they chuck a few coins into an eager, open case.  In those ten to twenty seconds they walk by they just want two things from a performer, if they are to be accosted by his music without their consent: not to be bombarded with insufferable wailing, and to be pleasantly surprised. I’m certain when I’ve been scraping the bottom of the song book- barrel, I’ve failed at times in both regards. However, for the most part, it’s an enriching experience.

Kids are always the first to pay attention and babies are oglers like no others. Parents seem to be taken aback by the sheer attention their children can give to something they, as adults, barely register. Tiny hands are given coins, big ones push them along toward the folk playing pauper trying not grin with delight at the sound of coins bouncing off the green felt interior. “Veilen dank” interrupts any melody, regardless of convenience or timing. I have no name on my case, there are no contact details- this is purely survival. This is selling out before ever even contemplating artistry. Granted I play my own songs on occasion, and only others I find enjoyment in performing, but that’s only because they’re the ones I know, not for any ill-gotten thought of credibility.

There’s a tattooed-faced man who plays an odd musical box instrument outside Brandenburg Gate. I used to hold a job there where I spent the majority of my day fishing, like so many others, for straggling tourists in need of entertainment or distraction. There, I witnessed the king of Berlin’s buskers at work. He never spoke, apart from the odd greeting to other fair weather workers as he set up his antique musical contraption.  When a tourist asks for a photo, he reaches for a spare top hat, more fetching than his own, to place upon them and continues on smiling his unrelenting grin. He tips his hat in gratitude only when he’s been tipped first. This act is never less than perfection, never altering, never anything other than professional. The rest of the tourist trade looked on with awe, as we complained about the heat of the weather or scarcity of the crowd. I think of him now toward the end of a quiet day busking. Weekdays are always bare. There’s still enough money left to get all my groceries, and as I walk toward my awaiting train- I nod toward the Roma band who’ve packed up for the night. Smiling, I think perhaps tomorrow I’ll go for Sternbergs.