Friday, December 2, 2011

My ears and hearing

I don't think our ears get enough respect.  I understand that the fetus gets the ability to hear before it gets other senses.  Hearing and scent are "surround" senses, unlike vision which is more uni-directional.  Sure, peripheral vision actually gives us a swath of awareness but we can hear a sound from any angle.  I have heard that cats have especially acute hearing, that they can hear a mouse swallow in the next room.  In one of our Great Courses, our senses and aging, the incident is told of research on conditioning cats by showing a series of lights on a panel.  The experimenters were amazed to find that the best performer was totally blind!  That cat could hear which light sequence had occurred.  

I paid new attention to hearing from reading the ads and promotion material for the Brain Fitness Program, computer software by Posit Science.  They make practice and training software for both hearing and vision but they started with hearing.  I've been wondering about hearing and longevity: what is the correlation?  Putting the underlined words into Google brings up the point that those who can't hear are subject to dangers they may be unable to detect, such as approaching cars at the street corner.  

But that is just the sort of thing I am thinking about.  Not hearing as a tool but hearing as a big part of life.  In college, I wrestled against Gallaudet University, founded by Congress and Abraham Lincoln, the only university in the world specifically for deaf and hard-of-hearing.  Going there was impressive and informative.  I never attended any classes but several times, I wrestled in their gym and saw what life was like for those students.  Some differences but I was probably left with the impression that being deaf doesn't matter and affect us as much as it really does.

Fast forward about 50 years.  Now, I wear my 2nd set of hearing aids.  My wife is burdened by a guy who constantly asks what it was that she just said.  I know it is irritating but I don't want to lose contact with her.  She is patient but we both find little endearments lose something when repeated a 2nd time, more clearly and distinctly.  Explaining that we need "bread" not "lead" can be amusing but it can get tiresome, for both of us.

Just as we learned in psychophysics, there is a difference between detection of sounds (I know when she speaks and can hear that she is speaking) and recognition (I don't know what words she said).  I learned from Posit Science materials  and listening to Dr. Michael Merzenich on public tv that the part of my brain that decodes the sounds into meanings works more slowly than it used to.  Posit and the audiologists I see tell me often that my hearing would fade faster if I didn't wear hearing aids and if I weren't trying to understand what is said.  I also learned from working with the Posit software on exercises where I must choose which of two similar syllables was said, that I can sometimes tell what was said a tiny bit after I have already decided I couldn't.  That is, sub-conscious and slower processes are at work in my brain.

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