Do you sometimes meet a new person but forget his or her name almost immediately or hear the specials at a restaurant only to have trouble recalling them when it is time to order? And forget about directions — was that two lefts and a right or two rights and then a left? This happens to me quite a bit. If I read something or hear it and immediately write it down, I do better, but if I hear something in the absence of other stimuli or activity, I have a harder time remembering it. Now I know why.
I recently attended a presentation for improving museum experiences for people with hearing loss. It was a great session which helped build awareness of accommodation options (i.e., FM systems, CART to smartphones, etc.) that can work well in a museum setting. There were several excellent speakers, one of whom was an audiologist.
She advised the museum personnel to speak more slowly if they have a person with hearing loss in their tour groups and to expect more questions. “People with hearing loss remember verbal information less well,” she said. “They are working so hard to hear, that there is less immediate brain capacity left over for remembering.” Yup.
I found her advice so fascinating that I decided to do some research to see if her comments were based on anecdotal evidence or if someone had scientifically studied this problem. It turns out there is scientific proof that people with hearing loss have trouble with short term memory. The culprit is cognitive load, which is defined as the total amount of mental effort being used in working memory.
In a 1995 study published by the Acoustical Society of America, researchers studied the ability of young and old adults to listen and remember speech in noise. They found that when hearing conditions were more challenging (either because of impaired hearing or a noise condition or both), word recall suffered. Here is a quote from the paper.
“The results were interpreted as supporting a processing model in which reallocable processing resources are used to support auditory processing when listening becomes difficult either because of noise, or because of age‐related deterioration in the auditory system. Because of this reallocation, these resources are unavailable to more central cognitive processes such as the storage and retrieval functions of working memory, so that ‘‘upstream’’ processing of auditory information is adversely affected.”
In other words, when it is harder to hear something, there is so much processing that is happening in order to just hear, there isn’t much capacity left over for remembering. Welcome to the world of hearing loss.
Now that we know about this problem, is there anything we can do to improve our ability to remember speech in difficult listening conditions? Here are my suggestions. Please share yours in the comments.
1. Get lots of rest: If you know you will be doing some heavy listening, be sure to arrive well rested and well fed. The stronger your body and mind are upfront, the better cognitive power you will have in the moment.
2. Reduce extraneous noise and distractions: This is not always possible, but making the listening situation easier will boost our ability to remember what we hear.
3. Write it down: Research shows that students retain more information when they take handwritten notes versus electronic ones as the physical movements stimulate different cognitive processes. Perhaps jotting down a new person’s name or an important detail in a lecture can help with memory.
In the end, anything that reduces the clutter in our working memory will help us to remember what we hear and process it more effectively in real time.
Readers, do you think your hearing loss has impacted your short term memory?