Have you ever taken a class, or went to a lecture, where the ideas were presented so rapidly or in so complex a fashion that you learned next to nothing? If yes, your working memory was probably overloaded past its capacity.
Working memory and its limits
We all process information in three steps: 1) sensory information is received, where it is 2) either ignored or temporarily stored in working memory, and finally, 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 pours 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 filled working memory. So you have to repeat yourself, which they’ll understand only when they empty their cognitive cup, dedicating the mental resources necessary to fully grasp your speech.
The effects of hearing loss on working memory
So what does working memory have to do with hearing loss? In relation to speech comprehension, just about everything.
If you have hearing loss, especially high-frequency hearing loss (the most common), you likely have difficulty hearing the higher-pitched consonant sounds of speech. Consequently, it’s easy to misinterpret what is said or to miss words entirely.
However that’s not all. Along with not hearing some spoken words, you’re also taxing your working memory as you try to understand speech using additional data like context and visual cues.
This continuous processing of incomplete information burdens your working memory beyond its potential. And to make things worse, as we grow older, the capacity of our working memory declines, exacerbating the consequences.
Working memory and hearing aids
Hearing loss burdens working memory, produces stress, and impedes communication. But what about hearing aids? Hearing aids are intended to enhance hearing, so in theory hearing aids should free up working memory and improve speech comprehension, right?
That’s precisely what Jamie Desjardins, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Speech-Language Pathology Program at The University of Texas at El Paso, was intending to find out.
DesJardins studied a group of individuals in their 50s and 60s with two-sided hearing loss who had never worn hearing aids. They took a preliminary cognitive test that measured working memory, attention, and processing speed, before ever wearing 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 displayed appreciable enhancement in their cognitive ability, with improved short-term recall and quicker processing speed. The hearing aids had expanded their working memory, decreased the amount of information tied up in working memory, and helped them accelerate 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 virtually every aspect of their lives. Better speech comprehension and memory can improve conversations, bolster relationships, elevate learning, and stimulate productivity at work.
This experiment is one that you can test out for yourself. Our hearing aid trial period will permit you to carry out your own no-risk experiment to see if you can achieve the same improvements in memory and speech comprehension.
Are you up for the challenge?