How the brain decodes speech in noisy rooms

Photo credit: Maurício Mascaro

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Neuroscience News reported on research published in the open-access journal PLOS Biology that looked into how the brain treats speech in a crowded room, depending on how easy that speech is to hear and whether the listener is focusing on it.

The study used a combination of neural recordings and computer modeling to show that when an individual listens to speech that is being drowned out by louder voices, phonetic information is encoded differently from the way it is with quieter ambient noise.

I lack the neuroscience background to understand the details of this study but know enough to put it in context.  The inability to follow one conversation among many in a noisy environment is common in middle-aged to older adults, with studies showing a prevalence of 20-40% speech-in-noise difficulty. This is thought to be caused by hidden hearing loss, damage to nerve junctions in the ear not detected by standard pure-tone audiometry.

High ambient noise levels in public spaces, especially in restaurants,  are a disability rights issue for those with auditory disorders like hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis. The United States Access Board, a federal agency that promotes equality for people with disabilities, should set standards for ambient noise in public spaces. The Disability Rights Section at the Department of Justice should also include the much-needed regulations.

Mandated environmental modifications that help those with disabilities benefit everyone. For example, curb cuts and automatic entry doors that help those with mobility disabilities also help those pushing a baby carriage, workers with delivery carts or repair technicians with heavy-wheeled equipment. Similarly, making restaurants quieter so older people with hearing loss can understand what their grandchildren are saying will allow young parents to understand what their toddlers are saying, and everyone can enjoy the meal and conversation with their dining companions.

A quieter world will be a better and healthier world for all.


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