Have you ever taken a course, or went to a lecture, where the information was presented so quickly or in so complicated a fashion that you learned next to nothing? If so, your working memory was most likely overwhelmed past its capacity.
The limitations 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 problem is, there is a limit to the quantity of information your working memory can hold. Think of your working memory as an empty glass: you can fill it with water, but after it’s full, extra water just pours out the edge.
That’s why, if you’re speaking to someone who’s distracted or on their smartphone, your words are simply pouring out of their already occupied working memory. So you have to repeat yourself, which they’ll understand only when they empty their cognitive cup, devoting the mental resources required to fully grasp 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 common), you most likely have difficulty hearing the higher-pitched consonant sounds of speech. As a result, it’s easy to misunderstand what is said or to miss words completely.
But that’s not all. In combination with not hearing some spoken words, you’re also taxing your working memory as you attempt to perceive speech using complementary information like context and visual signs.
This continual processing of incomplete information burdens your working memory beyond its capability. And to complicate things, as we age, the capacity of our working memory is reduced, exacerbating the consequences.
Working memory and hearing aids
Hearing loss taxes working memory, produces stress, and obstructs communication. But what about hearing aids? Hearing aids are intended 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 intending to find out.
DesJardins studied a group of individuals 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, before ever wearing 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 displayed noticeable improvement in their cognitive aptitude, with improved short-term recall 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 accelerate the speed at which they processed information.
The implications of the study are wide ranging. With enhanced cognitive function, hearing aid users could observe enhancement in practically every area of their lives. Better speech comprehension and memory can improve conversations, strengthen relationships, elevate 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 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?