Have You Heard?
The old and the young hear an entirely different world. And that’s becoming a problem.
From EIGHTEEN BRIDGES MAGAZINE, Summer 2018 Robert Carter illustration
In 2005, the owner of a convenience store in the tiny Welch town of Barry had just about had it with loitering teenagers driving away customers. So he installed a prototype gadget lent to him by an inventor friend. He booted it up. The kids scattered. “It was as if someone had used anti-teenage spray around the entrance,” one reporter observed.
The device, called the Mosquito MK4, burped out a loud, rhythmic chirping the kids couldn’t stand. But customers over the age of 25 came and went as before. Most of them didn’t hear a thing. That’s because its sonic pulses are in the 17 kilohertz range — well beyond the reach of people suffering even mild forms of age-related hearing loss, called presbycusis. This affliction, which the World Health Organization estimates will affect half a billion people worldwide by 2025, gradually shaves off the higher end of the aural spectrum. Presbycusis is one of the obvious physical signs of aging. The Mosquito MK4 is a Boomer’s revenge fantasy: the greybeards turning the young’s own faculties against them.
What happened next you can guess. A group of young coders took the Mosquito signal and worked it into the customized phone app Teen Buzz. High school students started using it to send text messages in class, under the noses of their oblivious teachers and supervisors.
The elders returned serve. There are now numerous apps that spit out high-pitched squeals with no purpose but to annoy young people. Some of these apps have been built by young people themselves. (The profit motive will usually trump tribal affiliation.)
This whole saga, while funny, is troubling. The wondrous human sense of hearing, weaponized for intergenerational warfare? If anything hearing ought to bind us together, not drive us apart. We have to hear to listen, after all. And hearing is the most social of the senses.
“When you lose your vision, you sever your connection to things. When you lose your hearing, you sever your connection to people,” Helen Keller said. That quote meant little to me when I first encountered it in high school. But stored in the dark potato bin of memory, it put out shoots not long ago when my own hearing began to fail.
The first signs were the mishearings.
“What’ll you be doing on your Quebec exchange?” I asked my daughter over breakfast.
“Well, it’s the Winter Carnival,” she said. “We’re going to visit the Plains of Abraham and pee on them.”
“That’s very disrespectful,” I said.
What she actually said: ‘We’re going to visit the Plains of Abraham and ski on them.”
Likewise, my weary wife, Jen, who is a teacher, did not reply when I recently questioned her weekend plans to “return to the grave.”
What she actually said: “Return my grades.”
The top end of the sound spectrum is where consonants live. As we age, it becomes hard to distinguish a “v” from a “d.” So in every sentence there’s at least one word that’s a flat-out guess. Without context you guess wrong a lot. But that’s not even the most irksome thing about presbycusis – as Jen would no doubt attest.
One day the dog got into the bird feeder, which held half a pint of seed and suet. That night she whined every hour or so to be let out. Or so I was told. I heard nothing. Jen kept getting up, while I lay in bed wondering, What else am I not hearing? It was – how else to put it?—an emasculating thought. Men who can’t hear, can’t help. We are firefighters with no alarm, sleeping peacefully while the town burns. Not much later, after some prodding, I got checked out. Two hearing tests confirmed everyone’s suspicions. Full-on presbycusis. My hearing through the top third of the normal aural range was basically shot.
Now, if its consequences were limited to annoying family members by passing them a fork instead of the corn, presbycusis could be ignored as a minor irritant. Eventually, though, hearing loss becomes a mental health issue. It’s correlated with depression, born of that creeping sense of isolation. Losing your hearing is like sitting on an airplane in coach. You’re aware of the boozy hubbub coming from the other side of the first-class curtain. There’s a party going on and you weren’t invited.
But the news gets worse. Mild hearing loss, as the Johns Hopkins researcher Frank Lin discovered, doubles your chance of developing dementia. Moderate hearing loss triples it. No one knows precisely why, but there are two main theories.
The first is behavioral. Cut off from the world, people with hearing loss withdraw even further, thereby starving off the experiential input the brain needs to grow. The main stimulus to brain health is interaction with others.
The second theory involves the physics of the brain. Call it the cognitive overload theory. Your mind is working so hard to understand that it’s sucking resources from other regions, including the hippocampus, where memories are consolidated. It’s as if you’re spending every cognitive dollar trying to hear, and putting nothing in the memory bank. When memories aren’t stored, they can’t be retrieved.
Whatever the cause of the correlation, doing nothing about hearing loss is a bad idea, because we are also learning that once our hearing degrades beyond a certain point, no hearing aid can fully bring it back. Not because the machinery of our inner ear is toast (though dying hair cells are part of the story), but because the brain has changed, and can no longer accurately decode the incoming signal.
That’s the gist of the work coming out of Bruce Schneider’s Human Communication Laboratory at the University of Toronto. Schneider, a professor of psychology, leads a multi-university research group investigating sensory and cognitive aging. That includes the social implications of a dialed-down world.
“Hearing loss is a wedge between the old and the young,” Schneider told me during a recent tour of his lab, at the U of T’s Mississauga campus. A starting place for repairing the disconnection, Schneider finds, is to help people experience what it’s like on the other side.
In his undergrad class, Schneider plays an audio clip of a man talking. But the clip has been adjusted. The high-end frequencies in the signal have been dampened by as much as 70 decibels. So the students hear the clip the way an 85-year-old with significant hearing loss would. They can still hear the speaker. But no one can understand him. The consonants are anybody’s guess.
Then Schneider starts to add back the higher frequencies. “Raise your hand when you start to understand,” Schneider says. A few outliers do, followed by the rest of the class at once: the faux-elderly recovering their youth.
Not long ago, a student came to see Schneider after class. He said the exercise had brought him closer to his grandfather.
Later that morning, Schneider ran me through a couple of the same hearing tests he gives his older experimental subjects.
I took a seat in a soundproof room, between two speakers. This is the dreaded auditory interference test. If you’ve ever tried to listen to two conversations at the same time, you know how hard it is. And this task gets tougher as we age. That’s because “it takes a second or two to segregate the voices,” Schneider said. “Whereas in younger people it happens almost instantaneously – within 100-200 milliseconds.” The brains of older people are always playing catch-up. Presbycusis makes things worse. You feel like you’re constantly a beat out of step, like a guy in a football crowd standing to do the wave, hot dog overhead, after everybody else just sat down.
Schneider told me I would hear two stories: a “target” story and a “mask” story. But in this diabolical trial, both would be told by the same person and would issue from the same speaker. My job was to listen to the target and ignore the mask.
Within thirty seconds I was in the weeds. I got sucked into the mask story about Mark Twain. Afterward, given a test on the target story, I failed. The whole thing left me exhausted—the way you feel at the end of a day trying to navigate in a foreign city.
Schneider is sympathetic. At 77, he suffers from the hearing loss he investigates. He knows what it feels like to be on the wrong side of that social divide.
“I was at a cocktail party a few years ago, just circulating around,” he told me, “and I thought I heard somebody say, ‘Joseph Fourier changed Canadian Society.’ I thought, Oh, I know him!’” Fourier, the French mathematician who discovered the Greenhouse Effect, also did pioneering work on harmonics. “I thought, ‘This’ll be an interesting conversation to join.’ It took me awhile to realize they weren’t talking about Joseph Fourier; they were talking about Wilfred Laurier. I got two or three minutes into the conversation. Nobody said anything to me. They must have been thinking one of two things: Either Schneider is so obsessed with signal processing that he can’t talk about anything else, or he’s going demented.”
I laughed with him at the conclusion of this story, but its implications are profound. Consider the stakes for an older person going in for a psychological assessment. Many such tests includes verbal instruction. You think exam-taking was stressful in college? Here your performance may determine where you’re going to spend the rest of your life. You’re ushered into a curtainless room with a hard floor — a reverberation chamber. You miss a couple of consonants at the beginning of words, which leaves you fishing for the meaning of whole sentences. You fail the test. A hearing issue has been mistaken for a thinking issue. And your story just acquired a new ending.
One of the strangest and most disturbing things about the early stages of hearing loss is there are times it seems your hearing is perfectly fine. In a quiet room, looking directly at my wife, I cam make out every syllable she says. Crystal clarity, ample volume.
The senses help each other out. Visual cues are vital to accurate hearing. Watching someone speak yields a fourfold improvement in comprehension. Indeed, looking into a speaker’s face is so important to perception that it can trick us into actually “hearing” a different sound than we think the lips are making. This is known as the McGurk Effect.
But get us hard-of-hearing into a crowded restaurant and even visual cues can’t save us. It’s the ambient noise – the chaos of acoustic interference — that does us in.
And interference is the new normal. The open-plan architecture our culture has decided is the most visually appealing creates a sonic environment only a whale could love. Sound pinballs around. At a recent work lunch at a Thai restaurant in downtown Vancouver, I was reduced to cupping my hands behind my ears like Mr. Magoo. I could hear my young colleagues well enough, I just couldn’t tell what they were saying.
There is a reason commercial spaces like restaurants and bars are so loud: it works. Loud works. A 2008 French study found that when bar owners turned the music up, customers drained an equal measure of beer almost 20 percent faster. The retail environment ups the ante. Hip retail chains oxygenate the air with tunes. Some of the loudest stores in the United States are Urban Outfitters, and Virgin, Katherine Bouton reported in her book Shouting Won’t Help.“Adults come out reeling, she wrote. “Kids, the target market, pull out their credit cards.”
The electronic soundscape of modern life—a chorus of the pings and whooshes of handheld devices—is optimized to the hearing of the young. “Someone who’s 80 and someone who’s 12 are going to have different responses to a sound,” Oberlin music theory professor Will Mason said recently. (Google, on this score, is more ageist than Facebook: it has higher-pitched UI sounds.)
All this ambient noise has a side effect. It doesn’t only make it hard for older people to hear, it clouds their memory. Schneider runs his test subjects through a “paired associations” test. Older people “aren’t as able to store unrelated items in memory while there’s noise,” he says. By tailoring built environments to the young, designers are handicapping the old, unwittingly or not. And so the divide widens. One could argue that the biggest architectural change in recent times is the move from physical to online communication. We no longer see who we’re talking to. Which means the McGurk Effect, the Boomers’ ace in the hole, is out of play.
A few months ago, with a heavy sigh, I signed the paperwork for a brand new set of Oticon Opn 3s, made in Denmark. They are so expensive I’m paying for them in monthly installments, like a car.
Back at home, I popped in their tiny batteries and slid the devices behind my ears. And just like that, the aural bridge between the world of the old and the world of the young was magically restored. Although not so gracefully.
Ka-runnnnnch! Whoa. Did I just run over something? No, that was my wife in the passenger seat biting into an apple. We took the kids to the multiplex to watch A Wrinkle in Time. It was hard to tell if the film was any good. All I heard was a riot of rustling Twizzlers bags and snarky comments from the teenagers two rows back.
Home life has become chockablock with the kinds of sounds foley artists insert into movies post-production. Open the freezer door and something’s crackling in there. I can hear the “ultra-quiet” new Blomberg dishwasher from the next room. I can hear body sounds I should not be able to. The dog basically gurgles nonstop. It occurs to me how annoying my casual whistling must be to everyone else.
The Bee Gees have returned to the grocery store. I’d stopped hearing them five years ago. Now here they are again, with their unconscionable falsettos. For once, I feel an affinity for rocker Ted Nugent, who offered to buy Muzak for $10 million, so he could shut it down.
The hearing aids have been, at best, a mixed blessing. I’m coming to appreciate the high-tech listening devices I already owned. They’re called ears. They pair well with that other high-tech listening device, the brain. Even the best hearing aids aren’t nearly as good at filtering what you don’t want to hear. Like the whine of bicycle brakes. The menacing grind of escalators. Your spouse filing her nails. By boosting the signal, hearing aids introduce distortion. Things sound tinny. Your own voice sounds miked. It’s like Dylan going electric in your head.
On the positive side, I’m more alert. Booting up hearing aids in the morning is like guzzling a cup of coffee. The London-based experimental artist Caroline Hobkinson found something similar when she started playing with different tones. “Staccato sounds,” she concluded, “make you much more aware and much more appreciative.” The aging brain is lulled into a kind of stupor as the senses diminish. Restoring the top third of the aural spectrum is like throwing open the blind to sunshine. The stimulated brain suddenly has more to do.
Unexpectedly, since getting the hearing aids, I’ve also lost a bit of weight. Maybe a co-incidence. But maybe not, suggested the Oxford experimental psychologist Charles Spence, when I reached him via Skype.
Spence is best known for his crisps study. When test subjects ate stale potato chips, paired with the sound of a lusty crunch as they bit down, the chips tasted fresh. It turns out bland or bitter foods taste sweeter and better when you accompany them with high-pitched sounds. He calls the phenomenon “sonic seasoning,” and it has implications for design soundscapes from restaurants to elder-care facilities.
When you pump music into a coffee shop, and boost the signal in the upper register, customers put less sugar in their coffee, Spence found. I told him of my weight-loss-following-hearing-aids theory. Could be true, he said. On the other hand, one might also expect the opposite: restoring full-spectrum hearing makes eating fun, a crunchy, slurpy, multi-sensory party. So you might eat more.
Oh yes. Those mis-hearings? Gone. But strangely, I kind of miss them. The world is now a little dis-enchanted. No more “pepperoni tree” in the neighbour’s yard. My daughter’s feet are no longer hot in her boots on account of her “flammable socks.” And that tailback for the Raiders I’d heard a broadcaster call “Buffalo Wildwings”? No mention of him lately. Maybe he retired.
I’d been quite enjoying the Snow Falling on Cedars soundtrack of my pre-hearing-aid life. It seemed a benediction: nature’s way of granting the middle-aged some earned peace and quiet. In the accreting stillness of wisdom, the little true voice inside you – the “target story,” not the “mask” story — emerges. And maybe that’s something you really don’t want to fix. I began entertaining the notion that I’d spent almost five grand I didn’t have to make my life worse.
“How are the hearing aids working, Dad?” asked my 13-year-old daughter one day.
“A little too well,” I said. “I hear things I wish I didn’t.”
“Welcome to our world,” she said.
Thus far, scientists’ efforts to find a cure for hearing loss – from hair-cell regeneration to hormone pills – haven’t yielded much. But that could change. “Hearing loss is becoming more prevalent,” says the North Vancouver registered audiologist Katie Daroogheh. “The next generation is going to start experiencing hearing loss in their 30s and 40s.” That’s because aging isn’t the only culprit. Environmental noise is, too. As a species, we might be at peak noisiness right now. The electric machine revolution that will, many believe, make life quieter, is likely decades away from its full expression.
If the young start needing hearing aids en masse, innovation will surge. And so will marketing. “When enough people wear hearing aids it’ll probably become something like eyeglasses,” says the Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer. Perhaps teams of marketing creatives are assembling already, charged with making hearing aids not just less uncool but actually cool. Not “nearly invisible,” as high-end units like my Oticons are pitched now, but fashionably obvious. Even sexy.
I’d like to be listening through the wall on that ad campaign:
Who’s hard of hearing? Every peacekeeper in a war zone, every cowboy on a cattle drive, every member of your favourite rock band. Being hard of hearing means you have lived. You didn’t run from the lion. You stuck your head in its mouth as it roared.