How Do We Hear Voices in a Crowd?

In Health, Hearing Health, Hearing Loss, News, Research by Bary E. Williams Au.D.

Hearing loss is more common than you might think, and nearly 40 million Americans are struggling to hear. Sadly, only around 20% of those who need hearing aids actually seek treatment for their hearing loss, choosing to live with poor hearing rather than taking charge of their hearing health. Those living with untreated hearing loss risk poor communication, damaged relationships, social isolation, and depression. They’re also more likely to experience rapid cognitive decline, and have a higher chance of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Investing in hearing aids could change all of that. Hearing aid technology continues to improve in leaps and bounds, and new insight into how we hear voices in a crowd has helped hearing technology get even better at allowing us pick out important speech sounds in any environment.


How Do We Hear?

First, let’s talk about how we hear. As you know, sound in the environment is produced as sound waves, and when there are noises around you, these sound waves enter the ear. The outer ear directs the sound waves into the ear canal, where they hit the middle ear and cause vibrations in the inner ear, a fluid-filled chamber known as the cochlea. Tiny hair cells in the inner ear sense the vibrations in this fluid, convert those vibrations into electrical impulses, and send them racing up the auditory nerve to the auditory centers in the brain, where you interpret the impulses as sound.


Human Ears and Background Noise

To hear clearly in noisy places, our ears distinguish many subtleties in the sounds they’re hearing. MIT researchers has been studying the ear to understand this mechanism better, and they’ve had a breakthrough. In 2007, scientists uncovered another mechanism of hearing. Not only do the hair cells detect vibrations, but another sensor, the tectorial membrane, plays an important role. This membrane lines the cochlea, and is covered in tiny pores that help detect sound. It’s made of a gel-like material that’s not found anywhere else in the human body, and it is smaller than the width of a single hair. Despite its size, it plays a big role in stimulating the sensory receptors of the inner ear.

The tectorial membrane is vital to our ability to differentiate sounds based on varying pitches and intensity, and this helps us distinguish between all the different sounds in our environment. Being able to quickly discriminate between sounds is what allows you to tune in to important speech sounds in places with a lot of background noise, like focusing on one particular voice in a crowd.


Hearing Aids in Crowded Places

Hearing aids of the past were not as sophisticated as devices today. They might have amplified all sounds equally and were a nightmare to wear in crowded places. They were no help at all in noisy environments like a party or a restaurant where the sounds of one voice would get completely swallowed up in all the background noise. Modern hearing technology provides an entirely different listening experience.

Using the example set by the tectorial membrane, hearing devices are better than ever at distinguishing between different sounds in the environment. With technology designed specifically to help you hear in places with a lot of background noise, some of these programs can even provide better hearing in crowded places than the human ear!

With directionality microphones that allow you to focus the person speaking, and background noise reduction to dampen distracting sounds, your devices will scan the environment and find out where you want to focus your attention. This means you’ll get all the benefits of clear hearing without any of the work. As a final boost, speech enhancement will clarify any speech sounds you might be missing, and your hearing aids will have you hearing clearly whatever listening environment you find yourself in.


Exceptional Hearing Care

Do you struggle to hear during meetings at the office, when out with friends, or at a conference or concert? At Exceptional Hearing Care we’re excited to introduce you to some of our newest hearing devices that will help you hear effortlessly, no matter where you are. From tiny in the ear devices to rechargeable models, and the best in programs and settings, we have it all. Visit us today to discover the perfect hearing device for you!

Bary E. Williams Au.D.
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