Have you ever taken a class, or attended a lecture, where the ideas were presented so rapidly or in so complicated a manner that you learned almost nothing? If yes, your working memory was likely overloaded beyond its capacity.
The limits of working memory
We all process information in three steps: 1) sensory information is received, where it is 2) either disregarded or temporarily stored in working memory, and last, 3) either discarded or stored in long-term memory.
The trouble is, there is a limit to the amount of information your working memory can hold. Think of your working memory as an empty cup: you can fill it with water, but once full, extra water just flows out the side.
That’s why, if you’re speaking to someone who’s preoccupied or focused on their smartphone, your words are simply pouring out of their already filled working memory. So you have to repeat yourself, which they’ll understand only when they clear their cognitive cup, dedicating the mental resources necessary to understand your message.
The effects of hearing loss on working memory
So what does working memory have to do with hearing loss? In terms of speech comprehension, almost everything.
If you have hearing loss, particularly high-frequency hearing loss (the most common), you very likely have difficulty hearing the higher-pitched consonant sounds of speech. Because of this, it’s easy to misunderstand what is said or to miss out on words entirely.
However that’s not all. Together with not hearing some spoken words, you’re also taxing your working memory as you attempt to comprehend speech using additional data like context and visual cues.
This constant processing of incomplete information burdens your working memory beyond its potential. And to complicate things, as we get older, the volume of our working memory is reduced, exacerbating the consequences.
Working memory and hearing aids
Hearing loss taxes working memory, creates 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 exactly 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 bilateral hearing loss who had never utilized 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.
After utilizing hearing aids for two weeks, the group retook the test. What DesJardins found was that the group participants exhibited considerable enhancement in their cognitive ability, with greater short-term recollection and faster processing speed. The hearing aids had expanded their working memory, decreased the amount of information tied up in working memory, and helped them increase the speed at which they processed information.
The implications of the study are wide-ranging. With improved cognitive function, hearing aid users could witness improvement in almost every aspect of their lives. Better speech comprehension and memory can improve conversations, strengthen relationships, elevate 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 see if you can achieve similar improvements in memory and speech comprehension.
Are you up for the task?