Have you ever taken a course, or went to a lecture, where the ideas were presented so rapidly or in so complicated a fashion that you learned practically nothing? If so, your working memory was likely overwhelmed past its total capacity.
Working memory and its limitations
All of us process information in three steps: 1) sensory information is received, where it is 2) either dismissed or temporarily retained in working memory, and last, 3) either disposed of or stored in long-term memory.
The issue is, there is a limit to the volume of information your working memory can hold. Think of your working memory as an empty cup: you can fill it with water, but after it’s full, additional water just flows out the edge.
That’s why, if you’re talking to someone who’s preoccupied or on their smartphone, your words are simply flowing out of their already occupied working memory. So you have to repeat yourself, which they’ll fully grasp only when they empty their cognitive cup, dedicating the mental resources necessary to comprehend your speech.
The impact of hearing loss on working memory
So what does this have to do with hearing loss? When it comes to speech comprehension, just about everything.
If you have hearing loss, especially high-frequency hearing loss (the most typical), you very likely have difficulty hearing the higher-pitched consonant sounds of speech. As a result, it’s easy to misunderstand what is said or to miss words completely.
But that’s not all. Together with not hearing some spoken words, you’re also straining your working memory as you attempt to perceive speech using additional information like context and visual signs.
This continuous processing of incomplete information burdens your working memory beyond its potential. And to complicate things, as we age, the capacity of our working memory declines, exacerbating the effects.
Working memory and hearing aids
Hearing loss taxes working memory, produces stress, and impedes communication. But what about hearing aids? Hearing aids are intended to enhance hearing, so theoretically hearing aids should clear up working memory and improve speech comprehension, right?
That’s exactly what Jamie Desjardins, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Speech-Language Pathology Program at The University of Texas at El Paso, was about to find out.
DesJardins studied a group of men and women in their 50s and 60s with bilateral hearing loss who had never utilized hearing aids. They took an initial cognitive test that measured working memory, attention, and processing speed, prior to ever putting on a pair of hearing aids.
Then, after using hearing aids for two weeks, the group retook the test. What DesJardins found was that the group participants demonstrated appreciable improvement in their cognitive aptitude, with greater short-term recall and faster processing speed. The hearing aids had expanded their working memory, reduced the quantity of information tangled up in working memory, and helped them increase the speed at which they processed information.
The implications of the study are wide-ranging. With elevated cognitive function, hearing aid users could see improvement in practically every area of their lives. Better speech comprehension and memory can improve conversations, bolster relationships, enhance learning, and stimulate efficiency at work.
This experiment is one that you can try out for yourself. Our hearing aid trial period will allow you to run your own no-risk experiment to see if you can achieve similar improvements in memory and speech comprehension.
Are you up for the task?