Hearing — and Understanding — the World Around You Takes More Than Your Ears

In a noisy, crowded room, your brain can pick up subtle parts of speech and automatically arrange them into useful thoughts. Ever wondered how this miraculous feat happens? Well, new research brings us closer to understanding just that.

Researchers at Trinity College in Dublin were able to pinpoint the regions of the brain responsible for processing each individual sound that makes up human speech. What enters our ears as a flood of sound is automatically processed and sorted into consonants, vowels, pauses, and pitches, or what we know as language. We don’t think about it, we just do it — and it’s impressive how that complex task is performed instantaneously, thousands of times each day.

Known as phonemes, these syllables, breaks, and intonations are meaningless on their own, yet amazingly, the brain is able to arrange them into patterns it recognizes as speech, even in noisy environments with other competing conversations occurring simultaneously.

By identifying the regions of the brain responsible for processing each of these phonemes, the researchers proved two important points:

  1. Their method, known as electroencephalography, should prove very useful in future attempts to understand how the brain processes speech, a phenomenon that remains largely a mystery.
  2. The researchers have unwittingly demonstrated the importance of consistently visiting an audiologist.

An audiologist is specially trained in understanding the entirety of the ear-to-brain connection and the repercussions hearing loss can have in the long run — repercussions that can include not only further hearing loss but also feelings of isolation and depression, as well as an increased likelihood of cognitive decline and even dementia.

This holistic understanding of hearing grants an audiologist the ability to examine every aspect of your hearing loss. You might need to wear a hearing device, but then again, you may be able to alleviate your symptoms by changing certain behaviors. Everyone’s situation is unique, and regular visits to an audiologist are the best way to ensure that your hearing care is personalized to suit you.