Have you ever taken a class, or attended a lecture, where the information was delivered so quickly or in so complicated a fashion that you learned next to nothing? If so, your working memory was most likely overwhelmed beyond 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 unnoticed or temporarily stored in working memory, and finally, 3) either discarded or stored in long-term memory.
The problem is, there is a limitation to the volume of information your working memory can hold. Imagine your working memory as an empty container: you can fill it with water, but once full, additional water just flows out the side.
That’s why, if you’re talking to someone who’s preoccupied or on their cell phone, your words are just 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 comprehend your message.
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, particularly high-frequency hearing loss (the most typical), you most likely have trouble hearing the higher-pitched consonant sounds of speech. As a result, it’s easy to misinterpret what is said or to miss out on words entirely.
But that’s not all. Together with not hearing some spoken words, you’re also straining your working memory as you try to perceive speech using supplementary information like context and visual cues.
This constant processing of incomplete information burdens your working memory past its capacity. And to make things worse, as we grow older, the volume of our working memory diminishes, exacerbating the effects.
Working memory and hearing aids
Hearing loss burdens working memory, creates stress, and obstructs communication. But what about hearing aids? Hearing aids are supposed 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 about to find out.
DesJardins studied a group of men and women in their 50s and 60s with two-sided hearing loss who had never utilized hearing aids. They took an initial cognitive test that measured working memory, attention, and information processing speed, before ever putting on a pair of hearing aids.
After wearing hearing aids for two weeks, the group retook the test. What DesJardins found was that the group participants showed considerable improvement in their cognitive aptitude, with better short-term recollection and quicker processing speed. The hearing aids had broadened their working memory, reduced the quantity of information tangled 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 witness improvement in nearly every aspect of their lives. Better speech comprehension and memory can improve conversations, strengthen relationships, enhance learning, and augment productivity at work.
This experiment is one that you can try 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 similar improvements in memory and speech comprehension.
Are you up for the task?