Have you ever taken a course, or attended a lecture, where the ideas were delivered so quickly or in so complex a fashion that you learned next to nothing? If yes, your working memory was probably overloaded over and above its capacity.
The limitations of working memory
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 problem is, there is a limit to the quantity of information your working memory can hold. Picture your working memory as an empty cup: you can fill it with water, but once full, additional water just pours out the side.
That’s why, if you’re talking to someone who’s preoccupied or on their cell phone, your words are simply flowing out of their already occupied working memory. So you have to repeat yourself, which they’ll be aware of only when they clear their cognitive cup, devoting the mental resources required to fully understand your message.
The impact of hearing loss on working memory
So what does working memory have to do with hearing loss? In relation to speech comprehension, almost everything.
If you have hearing loss, particularly high-frequency hearing loss (the most common), you likely have difficulties hearing the higher-pitched consonant sounds of speech. Because of this, it’s easy to misunderstand what is said or to miss words completely.
However that’s not all. Together with not hearing some spoken words, you’re also straining your working memory as you try to understand speech using complementary data like context and visual cues.
This continuous processing of incomplete information burdens your working memory beyond its capacity. And to make matters worse, as we grow older, the volume of our working memory declines, exacerbating the consequences.
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 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 men and women in their 50s and 60s with two-sided hearing loss who had never used hearing aids. They took a preliminary cognitive test that measured working memory, attention, and processing speed, prior to ever putting on 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 considerable improvement in their cognitive ability, with greater short-term recollection and quicker processing speed. The hearing aids had expanded their working memory, reduced 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 observe improvement in nearly every area of their lives. Better speech comprehension and memory can improve conversations, strengthen relationships, elevate learning, and supercharge productivity at work.
This experiment is one that you can try out for yourself. Our hearing aid trial period will permit 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?