When you’re born with hearing loss, your brain develops a little bit differently than it otherwise would. Is that surprising to you? That’s because we usually think about brains in the wrong way. You might think that only damage or trauma can alter your brain. But the reality is that brains are a little more…dynamic.
Your Brain is Impacted by Hearing
You’ve most likely heard of the concept that, as one sense diminishes, the other four senses will grow more powerful to compensate. The popular example is usually vision: as you lose your vision, your taste, smell, and hearing will become ultra powerful as a counterbalance.
That hasn’t been proven scientifically, but as is the case with all good myths, there might be a sliver of truth in there somewhere. Because loss of hearing, for example, can and does alter the sensory architecture of your brain. It’s open to debate how much this is valid in adults, but we know it’s true with children.
CT scans and other research on children with loss of hearing show that their brains physically change their structures, changing the part of the brain normally responsible for interpreting sounds to be more sensitive to visual information.
The newest studies have gone on to discover that even mild loss of hearing can have an effect on the brain’s architecture.
How Hearing Loss Changes The Brain
When all five senses are working, the brain dedicates a specific amount of space (and power) to each one. The interpretation of touch, or taste, or vision and so on, all make use of a specific amount of brain power. When your young, your brain is extremely flexible and that’s when these pathways are being formed and this architecture is being set up.
It’s already been verified that the brain altered its architecture in children with high degrees of hearing loss. Instead of being dedicated to hearing, that space in the brain is restructured to be committed to vision. Whichever senses deliver the most information is where the brain devotes most of its resources.
Changes With Mild to Moderate Loss of Hearing
What’s unexpected is that this same rearrangement has been observed in children with minor to medium hearing loss also.
To be clear, these changes in the brain aren’t going to produce significant behavioral changes and they won’t lead to superpowers. Instead, they simply appear to help individuals adapt to hearing loss.
A Relationship That Has Been Strong For a Long Time
The research that hearing loss can alter the brains of children definitely has implications beyond childhood. Hearing loss is commonly a result of long term noise related or age related hearing damage meaning that the majority of people who suffer from it are adults. Are their brains also being changed by loss of hearing?
Noise damage, according to evidence, can actually trigger inflammation in particular regions of the brain. Hearing loss has been connected, according to other evidence, with higher risks for dementia, depression, and anxiety. So while we haven’t proven hearing loss boosts your other senses, it does affect the brain.
That’s borne out by anecdotal evidence from families across the US.
Your General Health is Influenced by Hearing Loss
It’s more than superficial information that hearing loss can have such an important effect on the brain. It’s a reminder that the brain and the senses are intrinsically linked.
There can be noticeable and significant mental health issues when loss of hearing develops. Being mindful of those impacts can help you prepare for them. And being prepared will help you take steps to maintain your quality of life.
Many factors will determine how much your loss of hearing will physically change your brain (including how old you are, older brains tend to firm up that architecture and new neural pathways are more difficult to establish as a result). But there’s no doubt that untreated hearing loss will have an influence on your brain, regardless of how mild it is, and no matter what your age.