Researchers find new insight into hearing assessments

People who have difficulty following conversations in noise may need to use less effort, according to new research

Dennis Barbour
Dennis Barbour

When in a noisy crowd, it's often easier to understand what someone is saying to us when we can see the speaker's face. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and Carleton College found new evidence that may help people who have difficulty following noisy conversations use less effort to do so.

Dennis Barbour, associate professor of biomedical engineering at the School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University, and Julia F. Strand, a former postdoctoral researcher in Barbour's lab and now an assistant professor of psychology at Carleton College, found in two separate experiments that showing people an abstract visual signal significantly reduced the amount of effort needed to comprehend the speech. Their results, published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, confirmed previous experiments that, unlike talking faces, other visual information is usually not helpful to improve a person's speech recognition. Visual shapes modulated by the speech envelope can, however, reduce the overall effort required for this task. This frees up mental resources for other strategies, such as storing more bits of the conversation in memory and better following the gist, if not every word.

"This finding has important clinical implications, as it suggests that hearing assessments that measure recognition accuracy but do not take into account the cognitive requirements of speech understanding may be missing important information about a patient's listening experience," Strand said.

Read more about the study here.

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