Evelyn Glennie: Still Helping Us Listen

"In a way I see the body as a big ear," percussionist Evelyn Glennie told Guy Raz of the "Ted Radio Hour." Photo by Caroline Purday.

“In a way I see the body as a big ear,” percussionist Evelyn Glennie told Guy Raz on the “Ted Radio Hour.” Photo by Caroline Purday.

“My aim really is to teach the world to listen,” says Evelyn Glennie at the opening of her wildly popular 2003 TED Talk, “How to Truly Listen.” “That’s my only real aim in life.”

Much has changed in the 12 years since the celebrated Scottish percussionist urged an audience in Monterey to “really use our bodies as a resonating chamber.” She’s since become Dame Evelyn Glennie, her long dark hair has silvered, and she’s gone on record saying she’d like to record with rapper Eminem.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is the public’s general understanding of how we listen. Glennie, who is profoundly deaf (unlike someone who is totally deaf, she hears some sounds), has long argued that “hearing” is not the same as “listening”—that in fact, ears are just one avenue of receiving sound.

“Hearing is basically a specialized form of touch,” she writes in a fascinating piece called “The Hearing Essay.”   She demonstrates this principle beautifully in “How to Truly Listen,” and 12 years later her message still, well, resonates. Enjoy it below, or listen to a 10-minute segment on from a June 2015 episode of NPR’s “The TED Radio Hour.”

—Traci Hukill

Your Brain’s Creative Response to Hearing Loss

Brain-public-domainOur understanding of the human brain is always changing—much like the brain itself, which is constantly forming new pathways in the phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. Now we know that the brain responds to even slight diminishment in sensory perception.

New research is suggesting that the brain actually reorganizes itself in response to the loss of one of the five senses. Like a company that closes a division but keeps the employees on the payroll, it reassigns neurons to other functions. It does this even when the sensory loss is fairly minor.

Dr. Anu Sharma of the University of Colorado unveiled research in May showing that, in people with hearing loss, the parts of the brain that process visual patterns and touch will “recruit” areas of the brain where hearing is normally processed. That happens both when the hearing impairment is severe (as in deafness) and when it’s minor (in the early stages of age-related hearing loss).

Dr. Robert Sweetow, an audiologist and professor at the UC–San Francisco School of Medicine, puts it like this: “Twenty-five years ago the brain was thought to be a fixed entity—that if you were blind, the visual cortex wasn’t getting stimulated anymore.

“If you’re deaf or blind, that is affecting the peripheral organs—the eye and the ear,” he continues. “But the brain itself, those neurons designed for hearing and vision, they want to be doing something. So they take on other roles.”

Audiologists are trying to figure out what this means for people with hearing loss. Can it be reversed? Can those former “employees” of the brain’s hearing processing center ever get their old jobs back? And if they can’t, what is the prognosis for patients recovering their ability to process sound with the aid of technology?

It depends on whom you ask. Sharma warns that such “cross-modal cortical reorganization” could spell bad news for people who are suddenly reintroduced to sound—as happens when people get cochlear implants, which bypass damaged auditory organs and send signals directly to the brain.

“We find that this kind of compensatory adaptation may significantly decrease the brain’s available resources for processing sound and can affect a deaf patient’s ability to effectively perceive speech with their cochlear implants,” said Sharma.

This being science, there is a competing view. “Other researchers have taken the idea that if certain areas of brain—like the frontal lobe, which controls a lot of logic and rational thinking—if that starts to take over for some of the hearing functions, then maybe that is a good compensation,” says Sweetow.

The jury’s out on this one for now. But be it known: this writer would gladly trade a little hearing for some extra smarts, in case anybody’s asking. —Traci Hukill


The Promise of Here

Do you hear what he Heres? Doppler Labs' new "hearable" enables individualized soundcapes. Doppler Labs image.

Do you hear what he Heres? Doppler Labs’ new listening system enables individualized soundcapes. Doppler Labs image.

The next big thing in listening enhancement is Here. No, really. That’s the name of New York–based Doppler Labs‘ new in-ear listening system, consisting of two wireless earbuds and a smartphone app that lets you put an audio equalizer on your entire world. Cello solo at a live concert? Crank it up! Crying babies and snoring partners? Turn that noise down.

Big-name investors like it: Doppler Labs just raised $17 million in a funding round that will pave the way for the product to hit shelves in December at $249 apiece. But Here also appeals to the hoi polloi; a June Kickstarter campaign yielded $635,000 from 2800 people who signed up to be the first kids on the block with Heres. That’s got to be good news for a company that will be marketing its product to the public. (Actually, Here is Doppler’s second product. Its high-end Dubs earplug has already managed to make hearing protection sexy.)

The possibilities for those with hearing loss are tantalizing. The technology works by recording, recalibrating and replaying sounds so quickly that there’s no perceptible lag time, according to many reviews we’ve read online. And while CEO Noah Kraft came up with the idea as a way to allow his fellow 20- and 30-something concertgoers at the far end of Row 43 to have the same experience as those in the center of Row 8, co-founder Fritz Lanman predicts that in 10 years, people will be wearing them 24 hours a day. ““You put them on, and at night you can hear waves and your wife doesn’t have to hear waves. She can hear the baby crying, if she’s nursing, and you don’t have to. Neither of you have to hear the garbage truck,” Lanman told Wired.

And yes, perhaps one day you’ll be able to simply raise the volume on the frequency of your spouse’s voice or that of the person seated next to you at your niece’s very noisy wedding. Or, what the heck, turn them down. —Traci Hukill

Read more about Here at Re/code and Business Insider.

Five Good News Stories for Your Ears


Cheerleaders at UW-Madison, 1948/Creative Commons

June 25, 2015—Did you miss the cheers going up from the hearing impaired section of the globe? Some good news has come to light for people with hearing loss in the last six months. In case you missed it, here are five things to be happy about if you or someone you love suffers from degraded hearing.

1. The Hearing Aid Tax Credit. Introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in April and in the Senate in January, this law would grant a tax credit of $500 per ear for hearing aids every five years. For most people that would work out to $1000 (since most folks need aids in both ears) every five years—a far sight better than the $0 that Medicare and most insurers provide for hearing aids. Visit www.hearingaidtaxcredit.org for info and to write your Congressperson.

2. The Medicare Audiology Services Enhancement Act. Introduced earlier this month by Florida Congressman Gus Bilirakis, this law would allow Medicare patients access to audiology services beyond the diagnostic tests currently covered. That means coverage for auditory treatment and auditory rehabilitation services, vestibular (balance and dizziness) treatment and other advanced procedures. It’s one step closer to hearing loss being treated like any other health issue.

3. The “Hearing Aid Effect” is waning. Remember that research from 1977 showing that people assign negative attributes to individuals wearing hearing aids? Well, new research published in November shows that that particular stigma is blessedly on the decline as hearing aids become more aesthetically pleasing and devices like earbuds become more common. In fact, in some cases those with hearing aids are viewed more favorably than others; in a study by Catherine Palmer and Erik Rauterkus, subjects rated individuals wearing a standard-sized behind-the-ear hearing aid as “significantly more trustworthy” than those sporting Bluetooth communications devices.

4. A new drug for tinnitus and epilepsy? Maybe so. Neurophysiologists at the University of Connecticut have found a drug that may treat epilepsy while preventing tinnitus, both of which are caused when overactive cells send too many signals into the brain and the body cannot send out enough potassium to snuff them out. The new drug is closely related to an approved epilepsy drug called retigabine, but it acts more selectively on the body’s potassium channels, thereby avoiding retigabine’s rather rough side effects (which can include the skin and eyes turning blue). Hearing Review reports that FDA trials are in the works.

5. Technology. The startup boom may be a bubble, but it has some definite upsides. One is that a plethora of technological solutions to hearing loss have hit the market in the last year or two. A device that translates speech into text for the hard-of-hearing and a hearing aid that reads lips may seem like gadgets from the future, but in many cases they are already here. —Traci Hukill




Latino Males And Hearing Loss

abuelo-by-alejandro-gomezThe rate of hearing loss in Latino adults ages 18-74 living in the United States is on par with that of the general U.S. population—around 15%—according to new research published May 28 in the Journal of the American Medical Association Otalaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery. But mysteries lie in the details of this study of more than 16,000 Latino adults in the U.S., the first of its kind.

One of those mysteries is why the rate of hearing loss among Puerto Rican-American men over 45 is so much higher than any other subgroup in the study: 41.2%. By comparison, Mexican women had the lowest rate of hearing loss among adults over 45, at just under 18%. In general, Mexican-Americans age 18-74 had the lowest rate of hearing loss of any of the subgroups, at 11%, while in general, Puerto Rican-Americans in that age group suffered hearing loss at almost twice that rate.

So why the range? The study identified risk factors associated with hearing loss, including exposure to loud noises, income (the poorer, the harder of hearing) and diabetes. Could genetics play a role? The jobs available to people in these groups? Researchers are saying it’s time for some longitudinal studies to dig into these larger questions.

Read about it at the Latino Post, NIH and Science Daily.

—Traci Hukill

Photo by Alejandro Gómez, Creative Commons 2.0

Study: Hearing Loss Affects Partners, Too

senior-couple-public-domainIf you haven’t experienced it yourself, maybe you’ve observed it in parents or friends: the strain one person’s hearing loss can put on his or her primary relationship. A new overview of the scientific literature, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Audiology and summarized in Hearing Review, suggests that, indeed, hearing loss in older adults affects their “communication partners” (family members, spouses or significant others) negatively. “What emerges is evidence of restricted social life, burdens in communication, and reduced Quality of Life and relationship satisfaction,” reports Hearing Review.

The link between a person’s hearing loss and social isolation is well documented; a landmark 1999 study found that just 32 percent of survey respondents with untreated “more severe hearing loss” participated regularly in social activities.

But what about the spouses, significant others or primary caregivers of these folks? Rebecca Kamil and Frank Lin, MD, PhD, looked at 24 studies dealing with hearing loss in subjects over 50 years old containing specific data relating to the communication partners. Sixteen of the 24 studies found that hearing loss in one partner led to reduced quality of life for the other. Seven of the studies pointed to communication barriers leading to stress and lower satisfaction with the relationship, while four studies suggested that the communication partner—not just the hearing-impaired person—experienced decreased social interaction as a result of the partner’s hearing loss.

Whither thou goest.

It’s not too difficult to imagine how it happens. First come the minor compromises: no more dinners with friends in noisy restaurants. Then disagreements over the TV volume and frustration when phone calls must be shouted. Huffington Post writer Ann Brenoff describes the dynamic brilliantly in this 2012 article, from the sorrow of missing an old routine (“Do I miss his droll commentary whenever Anderson Cooper does a segment on ’60 Minutes?’ You bet I do”) to the loss of social independence at parties (“he stays close by my side, knowing that I’ll repeat key words of the conversation to enable him to join in. Has this put a crimp in our social life? Absolutely.”).

In between, one can imagine a daily barrage of minor irritations and inconveniences, a tendency to start saying “Never mind” rather than repeat a throwaway comment for the third time, pain felt on behalf of the partner with the hearing loss and the decision that it’s just easier to stay at home than try to negotiate social situations together.

“Hearing loss doesn’t just impact the person whose hearing is diminished,” Brenoff writes. “Everyone who loves them and lives with them suffers. How has my husband’s affliction affected our family? For one, I’m tired of being accused of mumbling, of watching my husband become frustrated when the kids make noise in the backseat and he can’t hear me giving directions when I’m sitting next to him in the car. The kids have slipped into the role of being their Dad’s ‘ears,’ knowing that he won’t understand them the first time; I hear their voices rise when they have to repeat things a third or fourth time and am grateful that there is no accompanying eye rolling or taking advantage of the fact that when he agrees to something, he might not actually have heard the request. “

There is a silver lining. Several of the 24 studies that Kamil and Lin analyzed looked at how treatment of hearing loss—whether through aural rehabilitation, hearing aids or cochlear implants—affected the communication partner. The news is good. “Overall,” the authors write, “these interventions were associated with improvements in [quality of life], relationship satisfaction, communication and social functioning for the CP.”

In other words, if taking action to treat hearing loss can bring back those wiseacre remarks about well-coiffed news anchors, ordinary breakfast table conversations and outings with the church group or friends, the partners of the hearing-impaired would be most grateful. —Traci Hukill

The James Bond Hearing Aid

hearing aid public domain imageMay 4, 2015—A hearing aid that reads lips? What is this, the future?

Actually, it’s the present. Scientists in Scotland are working on a hearing aid that has a tiny camera equipped with lip-reading software that uses facial recognition technology.The software translates the words into speech and plays it into the ear in real time, so no matter how noisy the room, the wearer has the equivalent of a personal assistant speaking directly into his or her ear, translating conversations.

Things could go a step further. The lip-reading function could be separated from the hearing aid—for example, mounted on a pair of glasses or a piece of jewelry—where it could then communicate with the hearing aid via wireless technology. Rather James Bond, no?

The Times of London reports that the technology, developed by researchers from the University of Stirling, the University of Sheffield and the MRC Institute of Hearing Research at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, could be used in noisy workplaces “or even on the battlefield.” Not to mention finding out, George Costanza-like, what people are saying about you at a noisy party.

High-Fidelity Ear Plugs: Cool Enough for Clint

DUBS at Coachella. Photo by Jake West (PRNews Foto/Doppler Labs)

DUBS at Coachella. Photo by Jake West (PRNews Foto/Doppler Labs)

April 30, 2015—What do Billy Joel, Kendrick Lamar,  Bassnectar and Clint Eastwood have in common? Right, not much. But the first three will be playing at Bonnaroo this June, meaning they’ll have, in a roundabout way, sponsorship from the maker of a high-fidelity ear plug called  DUBS Acoustic Filters. And the fourth guy was driving around Coachella last month looking for a pair of DUBS to call his own, according to YourEDM.com.

Ear plugs are getting cool. Possibly in response to German DJ and producer Zedd’s sudden hearing loss last August (he recovered), possibly because 50 million of their American elders suffer from tinnitus, possibly because the World Health Organization predicts that 1.1 billion teens and young adults worldwide are at risk of hearing loss due to damage from earbuds and loud concerts—or maybe because they have more common sense than the generations that preceded them—20- and 30-somethings are taking precautions with their hearing even at the most carefree events imaginable: the huge music festivals that proliferate across the country in warm weather.

This year South by Southwest handed out high-fidelity earplugs in schwag bags, and Coachella gave the VIP treatment to Doppler Labs, creator of  the DUBS Acoustic Filters ear plugs, which are designed to dampen volume without sacrificing audio fidelity.

Now New York-based Doppler is joining forces with Bonnaroo (June 11-14 in Manchester, Tennessee), the largest music festival in America, and Outside Lands (Aug. 7-9), San Francisco’s contribution to cool. DUBS will be the official ear plug of both festivals for 2015 and 2016.

Write the authorities at electronic dance music blog YourEDM.com: “We are going harder, louder, and longer than any audiences before us and if we want to be able to party this hard when we’re 30 we’re going to need to protect our hearing.”

High-fidelity ear plugs are getting to be a thing: other brands include one called the Earpeace and three hi-fi ear plugs reviewed in April 2014 by the Wall Street Journal: the V-Moda Faders VIP, Etymotic ETY Plugs ER20 and Earasers.

Sounds good to us.

Photo: DUBS at Coachella, credit Jake West (PRNewsFoto/Doppler Labs)

Three High-Tech Boons for The Hard of Hearing

ASLHere’s a sobering statistic: the World Health Organization estimates there are 360 million people around the world who suffer from disabling hearing loss, including 32 million kids. This being the age of tech, solutions have naturally arisen to address this global public health issue. In other words, there’s an app for that. Forbes has reported on three of them.

One is Motion Savvy UNI, to be released this September. A special camera captures American Sign Language gestures and translates it into text for “the world’s first two-way communication software for the deaf.” The more the app is used, the more it “learns” the user’s language, subtleties of gesture and idiosyncrasies. Cool. (Learn a bit more at TechCrunch.)

Solar Ear, which is a—you guessed it—solar-powered hearing aid, contains a battery that can last up to 3 years, which translates to a possible low-cost solution for the many people worldwide who must make do without hearing aids despite advanced hearing loss. Learn more here.

Iseewhatyousay translates speech into text for those who lost hearing late in life and don’t know ASL but can still speak. An explanatory video shows a man and his granddaughter walking side-by-side; she says “I love you, Grandpa” into her phone, and he reads his screen and says “I love you too.” Sweet.

Read about it at Forbes.com.

Photo by Daveynin on Creative Commons

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