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Why you can’t hear in background noise

Hearing speech in background noise isn’t easy. Whether you’re trying to pick your friend’s words out in a loud bar, hear a PA announcement at a ball game, or listen to your partner’s whispers in a crowded room, it can be a challenge, regardless of whether you’re experiencing hearing loss! However, having a hard time hearing speech in mild background sound is an early sign of hearing loss and should not be ignored. And for those who do have hearing loss, then the difficulty is even greater, and of course, frustrating.

The way the brain processes sounds in a loud environment has been studied for decades, and there have been some exciting discoveries in recent years.

Brain’s Role in Separating Speech from Background Noise

Up until recently, scientists believed that sound was processed in the auditory cortex, following a predictable linear process. Essentially, when we hear sounds, our auditory system (the primary auditory cortex) picks up simple features and then combines them into more complex representations, like turning sounds and syllables into words. However, new research has shown that this may not be the full story of how the brain processes sound or how it separates speech from background noise.

A new study challenges this notion and proposes that the early process of sound perception is still the same, but that the second half of the process is different. New findings show that the brain instead processes speech in parallel with other sounds.

This is how it is believed to work:

  • When someone speaks, the cochlea in our ear separates the sounds into various frequencies and sends those different representations to the auditory cortex.
  • Information is taken from those signals telling us the sound’s location, pitch, and how it may be changing.

This first half of the process is unchanged, what is different happens from here. New research suggests that:

  • Signals from the ear branch into distinct brain pathways at a much earlier stage in sound processing, working simultaneously.
  • By processing sounds in parallel, some speech perception bypasses the primary auditory cortex entirely, which was originally believed to be the area all sound information went to for processing.
  • For this to work, the brain needs to accurately and simultaneously process timing, sound patterns, and pitch.

This supports earlier discoveries that showed parallel functions in later stages of auditory processing, like complex musical and speech elements that are processed separately with their representations forming partly in parallel. The cochlea receives incoming sounds, the brain assesses pitch and tone, and translates them into something we understand, like our friend’s voice, a car driving down the road or rainfall outside.

Role of Cognition in Hearing in Background Noise

Our brains are truly remarkable, responsible for so much it’s almost difficult to believe. And when it comes to processing sounds, the brain is a real superhero. For language processing, especially with background noise, the brain’s elasticity and capacity to change is likely why we’re able to hear speech in loud settings.

  • The auditory cortex has neurons that pick out aspects of sound that are directly associated with speech, like pitch, amplitude, and timing.
    • These neurons are always tuning themselves to distinguish between words and smaller sounds (phonemes, sounds that distinguish one word from another) to help assign meaning to what is heard in a noisy environment.
    • This “tuning” is believed to help you “hear” speech in a noisy setting, the speech “pops out” from the auditory signals.
    • Simply put, the brain filters out the excess information and focuses on what it has been tuned to assume is necessary information, in this case, speech in background noise.

Cognition, or brain function, plays a massive role in allowing you to hear, whether in background noise or not, but hearing also has a significant impact on your brain health. This is why it’s important to see an audiologist as soon as you notice hearing loss. The earlier you catch it, the better your chances of coming up with a solution you can depend on.


There is new technology out there designed to test cognition, the Cognivue Thrive System. It is an FDA-approved technology that neurologists and other physicians, including audiologists, use to test cognitive (brain) function. It’s a simple, 5-minute test that can be self-administered through a computerized screening, which tests:

  • Memory
  • Visuospatial
  • Executive Function
  • Reaction Time
  • Processing Speed

After the test is completed, a brain health score is provided for each performance parameter listed above. This gives both you and your physician information on your overall cognitive ability with regard to regular daily activity. These test results are really useful, as they can lead to better treatment recommendations from your physicians, taking your brain function into consideration.

It makes sense, the Cognivue Thrive Test assesses your cognitive function on a high level. It demonstrates how much stimulus you can detect, and how you’re able to detect differences between stimuli in your environment using your senses. This means the test provides you with a diagnostic assessment of your overall health, giving your doctor extra information, empowering them to create a treatment that’s based on a more complete picture of your needs.

Trouble hearing in background sound is one of the first signs of hearing loss. With the right information in hand, an audiologist will be able to make recommendations that not only improve your hearing, but help with background noise too. For example, certain hearing aids can be programmed to reduce background noise, so that may be the only solution you required to address your needs.

No matter the severity of your hearing loss, an audiologist’s goal is to ensure you can hear as well as possible in background noise with as little effort as possible. That is why it’s important to get your hearing tested as soon as you notice something is amiss. An audiologist will perform a variety of hearing tests, including the Cognivue Thrive System test, to get a full picture of what may be impacting your hearing. If you notice any changes in your hearing, make an appointment with an audiologist today.

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