Have you ever taken a class, or went to a lecture, where the content was presented so quickly or in so complex a fashion that you learned practically nothing? If so, your working memory was likely overloaded past its capacity.
The limits of working memory
We all process information in three steps: 1) sensory information is received, where it is 2) either dismissed or temporarily stored in working memory, and last, 3) either disposed of or stored in long-term memory.
The issue is, there is a limitation to the amount of information your working memory can hold. Imagine your working memory as an empty glass: you can fill it with water, but once full, additional water just flows out the edge.
That’s why, if you’re speaking to someone who’s preoccupied or on their smartphone, your words are just 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, devoting the mental resources required to fully grasp your speech.
The impact 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 most likely have trouble hearing the higher-pitched consonant sounds of speech. As a result, it’s easy to misunderstand what is said or to miss out on words completely.
But that’s not all. In combination with not hearing some spoken words, you’re also straining your working memory as you attempt to perceive speech using extra information like context and visual signs.
This continuous processing of incomplete information burdens your working memory past its capacity. And to complicate things, as we grow older, the capacity of our working memory is reduced, exacerbating the effects.
Working memory and hearing aids
Hearing loss taxes working memory, brings about stress, and impedes communication. But what about hearing aids? Hearing aids are supposed to enhance hearing, so theoretically hearing aids should clear 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 bilateral hearing loss who had never used 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 wearing hearing aids for two weeks, the group retook the test. What DesJardins found was that the group participants exhibited noticeable enhancement in their cognitive ability, with better short-term recall and quicker processing speed. The hearing aids had broadened their working memory, decreased the quantity 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 enhanced cognitive function, hearing aid users could see improvement in virtually every area of their lives. Better speech comprehension and memory can improve conversations, bolster relationships, enhance learning, and augment 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 find out if you can accomplish similar improvements in memory and speech comprehension.
Are you up for the task?