PJ Gribbin: Should hearing tests be less crude, and look at our ability to pick out sounds?

Posted on May 7, 2014

I’m getting older and bits of me are starting to wear out. My eyes started going about twelve years ago – I’m short-sighted and I’ve been wearing contact lenses since I was 22, but gradually the old joke about needing longer arms for reading became less of a joke and reading-glasses became a natural part of my life.

But when I went to the optician, he didn’t say, “You’re going blind” – he told me that the lenses in my eyes were becoming less flexible with age and so could no longer bend sufficiently to focus on close objects.

They were still transmitting as much light as ever, and the sensors at the back of my eyes were still receiving and handling pretty-much the same amount of information as ever, but (without the reading glasses) that information was blurred and harder for my brain to interpret.

He worked all this out by getting me to read text in various fonts, colours and sizes, both close up and at greater distances.

He also varied the lighting to some degree, pointing out that contrast can be enhanced by good lighting and contrast is helpful to my eyes in extracting the information in front of them.

He never once shone a series of monochrome primary-colour lights at me, gradually increasing the intensity and asking if I could see them yet, or gradually reducing the intensity and asking if I could still see them – and if he had, then I’m sure that he would have concluded that I had perfect vision, because in no way would have it tested my eyes’ ability to focus.

I’m getting older and bits of me are starting to wear out. My ears aren’t what they were – for a good while now I’ve realised that I have to concentrate more on what I want to hear – ‘listen harder’ if you like, and it’s becoming more difficult to separate out the useful information from the background noise.

I’ve been for an audiogram. I had headphones placed upon my head through which were delivered a range of monotone beeps, one at a time, at different levels of volume, steadily increasing / reducing until I could hear them / not hear them.

The audiologist concluded that my high-frequency hearing was below par but otherwise my hearing was adequate. (She didn’t really seem interested in being told that ever since my teens I have had a high-frequency steady tinnitus which blotted out the beeps when she hit that frequency – so I let it go.)

Her conclusion was that hearing-aids might one day be of some help to me but, for the present, they’d probably be more bother than they were worth.

So … all that was tested was my ears’ ability to detect beeps that contained no information other than their frequency. I was never asked (for example) to pick out speech or other sound-patterns against different background noise environments – so my ears’ ability to ‘focus’ went completely untested.

Now, hearing-aid technology has come a very long way in the past couple of decades. As I understand it, not so long ago all they could really do was make stuff louder in a very general way – a bit like turning on a light if it’s too dim to see – and so maybe (as the technology couldn’t do anything other than turn the sound up) a hearing test that simply tested for ability to hear sounds at certain volumes was sufficient.

But is it sufficient for today? Can’t the technology now help me focus my hearing, as it helps me focus my eyesight? If it can, don’t we need tests that test for focus and the ability to, ‘pick out’ sounds instead of these crude systems currently in general use?

Perhaps the hearing-aid technology isn’t yet where I want it to be and it can’t yet assist with, ‘focus’ – but is that maybe partly because the tests aren’t exposing the real needs of a large part of the, ‘deaf’ community?

Maybe there’s somebody reading this who’s looking for a research topic for their Phd. Oh boy, I hope so! If you are – have this one on me – you don’t even need to cite me in your dissertation – have it for free!

Paul Gribbin is a semi-retired mainframe computer programmer who lives in the East Midlands. When he’s not computing he enjoys short walks – nothing over five miles please – accompanied by various dogs and grown-up children; these always seem to end up at tea-shops and pubs. He also likes reading (mostly science fiction) and during his brief acting career he once appeared as 4th Pleb in a school production of Julius Caesar.

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