Have you ever taken a class, or went to a lecture, where the content was presented so rapidly or in so complicated a manner that you learned almost nothing? If so, your working memory was likely overwhelmed over and above its total capacity.
The limits of working memory
All of us process information in three steps: 1) sensory information is received, where it is 2) either disregarded or temporarily retained in working memory, and last, 3) either disposed of or stored in long-term memory.
The problem is, there is a limitation to the quantity of information your working memory can hold. Think of your working memory as an empty cup: you can fill it with water, but after it’s full, additional water just pours out the side.
That’s why, if you’re speaking to someone who’s distracted or on their cell phone, your words are simply pouring 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 necessary to fully grasp your speech.
The effects of hearing loss on working memory
So what does working memory have to do with hearing loss? When it comes to speech comprehension, just about everything.
If you have hearing loss, especially high-frequency hearing loss (the most common), you likely have trouble hearing the higher-pitched consonant sounds of speech. Because of this, it’s easy to misinterpret what is said or to miss out on words completely.
But that’s not all. Together with not hearing some spoken words, you’re also taxing your working memory as you try to perceive speech using supplementary data like context and visual signs.
This constant processing of incomplete information burdens your working memory past its capability. And to complicate matters, as we get older, the volume of our working memory is reduced, exacerbating the effects.
Working memory and hearing aids
Hearing loss taxes working memory, creates stress, and impedes communication. But what about hearing aids? Hearing aids are intended to enhance hearing, so in theory 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 about to find out.
DesJardins studied a group of individuals in their 50s and 60s with bilateral hearing loss who had never worn hearing aids. They took a preliminary 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 exhibited appreciable improvement in their cognitive ability, with improved short-term recollection and faster processing speed. The hearing aids had expanded their working memory, decreased the amount of information tangled 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 find improvement in almost every aspect of their lives. Better speech comprehension and memory can improve conversations, bolster relationships, enhance 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 see if you can achieve similar improvements in memory and speech comprehension.
Are you up for the task?