A Simple Fix for Better Hearing

Want to know a simple trick for better hearing? Pay attention.

This isn’t as much of a no-brainer as it sounds. It’s very easy to let your mind wander when someone else is speaking. Maybe you’re distracted by something in your peripheral vision, maybe you’re thinking about what you’re going to say in reply, maybe you’re bored and thinking about how to get out of this particular conversation. I’m sure readers can name many everyday distractions.

If you can really focus your eyes and ears – and most importantly, your brain – on a speaker, you probably will comprehend more. In the past I’ve thought of this as “mindful listening”. Instead of saying “What?” halfway through the speaker’s sentence, make yourself wait until he or she has finished, take a moment to process everything you did hear, and then you may find yourself understanding in retrospect what the first few words were. If you still haven’t figured out the first few words, you can use your comprehension of the rest of the sentence to ask a specific, relevant question. “Who did you say almost ran over you with her cart at the supermarket?”

Many of us – or maybe even all of us — with hearing loss have been accused at one time or another of not paying attention. It’s as if they’re saying: “It’s your own fault that you aren’t hearing me.” This kind of comment is infuriating and inexcusable. What I’m talking about, rather, is a reminder to yourself to stay focused, to actively listen, to be mindful.

Equally important is to pay attention to sounds you can’t identify. Do your best to figure them out and you may recognize them the next time.  You “may,” that is. Not you “will.” Despite long-term hearing loss, I still have trouble distinguishing children shouting and playing from dogs barking in play. Not if I’m looking at them, of course, but if they’re around the next corner, they fool me every time.

People who get hearing aids or cochlear implants use this focus to teach them how to distinguish one sound from another with their newfound ability to hear. They have to learn to listen again, in a new sound environment. This is essentially what auditory rehab does: it teaches you to focus on sounds, so that you recognize them the next time.

As the brilliant neuroscientist Nina Kraus writes in her book “Of Sound Mind,” the process of learning to listen is lifelong, and it is accomplished by paying attention:

“We have spent a lifetime learning what is important, and with this learning we have taught our brains which sounds, sights, and smells require our attention and which can be profitably ignored. David Strayer, University of Utah psychologist, said, “Attention is the holy grail. Everything that you’re conscious of, everything you let in, everything you remember and you forget, depends on it.” Dr. Kraus is the speaker at our HLAA chapter’s October 18 meeting, which is free, captioned and open to all. For more information go to our website, hearinglossnyc.org and click on “programs.”

Paying attention in other areas as well makes a big difference. I’m a fast and proficient reader. But sometimes I realize that I’m reading with my eyes but not with my brain. I can’t remember a thing about a paragraph or article I just read. So I go back and read it again, this time making sure the eyes are connecting with the part of the brain that is going to decode these signals.

I’d be interested in hearing others’ experiences with the senses. What other kinds of signals can be detected but not processed by the brain? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

For more about living with hearing loss, read my books “Smart Hearing: Strategies, Skills and Resources for Living Better With Hearing Loss” and “Shouting Won’t Help: Why I and 50 Million Other Americans Can’t Hear You.” Both are available as ebook and paperback on Amazon.com.

8 thoughts on “A Simple Fix for Better Hearing

  1. My hearing loss has sharpened my visual senses. I’m much more aware of things in my environment. One of my friends remarked “I didn’t see that”, when we were discussing a movie. I automatically look for visual clues to help me understand a story.




  2. I am reminded of the mindfulness doctrine – “being here now”. Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindful meditations. Echoes of my grade school teachers always telling me: Jerry, pay attention!

    All of my senses have in some way been dulled by age. Just when I think I should be relaxing on some beach is exactly the time when I should be paying closer attention to what’s being said – what’s happening.

    I don’t do rehab as much as I once did, specially in the beginning of my CI experience six plus years ago. I listen to audio books all the time. The challenge for me are the accents, dialects, fast talkers and mumblers. But it’s the challenge that produces growth. Anyway, that’s what I tell myself. Thanks Katherine.


  3. Fatigue is a big factor for me. I’m good for about 90 minutes of conversation and then my ability to understand falls off, words scramble, and my mind wanders. I usually have to admit it and excuse myself.


  4. I find my “inner critic” gets in the way of my hearing what someone is saying. If I pay attention to what is being said fully, I hear much better. Hard to do sometimes when that voice it telling me “they think you’re clueless”. Thanks for the reminder to pay attention.


  5. I’ve been terribly inattentive most of my life. In my 40s, I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. I was especially terrible at remembering names of people I met. One day a friend who was good at remembering names shared his “trick.” He said when he first meets someone, he looks them in the eye, shakes their hand, an in the course of the conversation, says their name three times. Since my hearing loss, sometimes I add, “How do you spell that?” In my old age, I’ve become pretty good at remembering people’s names.


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