If the truth be told, we hear with our brains, not with our ears. Now, certainly our ears do play an important role in what we hear and how we hear, but our ears are simply very sophisticated sound collection systems. The sounds that are collected by the ears are sent through the auditory nerve to the brainstem and the signal then continues up to the auditory cortex – the hearing part of the brain. It is only in the brain that sounds and voices can be interpreted and have meaning. Hence, we do hear with our brains, not with our ears.
Another important fact to note about the brain and hearing is that loudness is a perception. In other words, something that you perceive as being loud to you today may not sound as loud to you tomorrow. A simple analogy to your sense of touch can provide a ready example of this phenomenon. Let’s say that you have never worn a wrist watch, and then you decide to buy and wear one. Initially you are aware of the feeling of the watch on your wrist all the time. However, as you grow accustomed or acclimated to wearing the watch, you become less and less aware of the feeling of it on your wrist.
When you have been experiencing a hearing loss over a period of time, your brain will have become accustomed to hearing with that hearing loss. Your level of hearing may be at a softer volume, or with reduced clarity (or both). It becomes difficult to understand conversation and discern the words clearly in order to carry on a meaningful conversation. When we utilize hearing aids to increase the clarity and/or volume of sounds, those hearing aids positively alter the way you will hear. In a manner similar to the watch example cited above, if you are used to hearing with a hearing loss, and suddenly you begin to hear more than what you had become accustomed to (with the help of hearing aids), it will take you and your brain some time to adjust to these changes.
Often new hearing aid users are surprised by what they are able to hear with their new hearing aids. Everyday sounds such as water hitting the basin of a sink may sound louder, rustling paper sounds sharper, voices sound clearer, and even one’s own voice will sound different. Often patients are surprised to hear the sound of their own footsteps, birds chirping in the morning, or the blinker in the car. Because loudness is a perception, these sounds seem significantly louder than they used to seem, and even louder than the new hearing aid user remembers. This perception that environmental sounds and voices sound different and louder than remembered will eventually moderate as the hearing aids continue to be worn and as the brain acclimatizes to the new sounds heard. Much like the feeling of the wristwatch that is noticed less and less as it is worn; these sounds will become less noticeable as the hearing aids are used.
This change in perception, in which hearing aid wearers become more comfortable with the sounds they hear, demonstrates that the brain can change. The change takes place as the brain becomes better at understanding the sounds that it hears when one is wearing appropriately fit hearing aids. Research on an individual’s adjustment to hearing aids tells us that our brains can still continue to change and thereby increase the benefits derived from hearing aids up to nine months after the initial hearing aid fitting. This is an important fact to keep in mind when we think about hearing in difficult listening environments, such as experienced in a busy restaurant. The first time a new hearing aid wearer visits a noisy restaurant will turn out to be a somewhat different experience from visiting that same noisy restaurant six months later.
If you are new to hearing aids, or think that you should probably have your hearing tested, please consult a qualified audiologist. Also, please remember that your brain plays a very important role in hearing, and while your brain has the ability to change, those changes can take time, … and patience. Your audiologist will work with you to help you through the process of adjusting to hearing aids.