A creative digital illustration of the human brain and how it listens whilst wearing a Lexie Lumen premium hearing aid

The Brain and Hearing: How Your Hearing Works

Sounds travel through the ear and that becomes hearing. But, did you know that your ears hear and your brain listens? The brain does all the hard work!

The Brains Role in Hearing – How Your Hearing Works

Most people know that sounds travel through the ear and that becomes hearing however, do you really know how hearing works? Interestingly, the sound doesn’t stop at the level of the ear. It is the brain that does all the hard work! In a nutshell, your ears hear, your brain listens.

Your brain is wired to make sense of all the sound that travels through your ear so that you can understand speech, communicate with others, appreciate music, and enjoy the sounds of nature. Your brain is wired to listen and you are wired to communicate!

You may recall your mother or teachers saying in class, “You look, but you don’t see! You hear, but you don’t listen!” Maybe your teacher, mother or grandma was very wise; we often do hear, but struggle to listen!

The parts of the brain responsible for hearing

Which part of the brain is responsible for this wiring that helps us to listen and interpret the sounds that we hear? Here’s a great drawing that illustrates exactly how the brain hears and how hearing works.

Sounds travel through your ear canal, the eardrum vibrates and this sets the bones in the middle ear into motion. Consequently, the tiny hair cells in your cochlea also move depending on whether it is a low, middle, or high tone sound. These motions will activate neurons in your hearing nerve that is also called the auditory nerve. It then goes across to the other side of your brain where the auditory or hearing part of the brain interprets it as speech, music, or sounds. This area is on the side of your head, just above the ear, and is called the auditory cortex. The brain can interpret the different tones or frequencies and can fill in parts of a message you may have missed. The brain also has the remarkable ability to change on the stimulation it receives and to add meaning overtime to the incoming information and use it optimally. This is called the neuroplasticity of the brain.

Now when you have hearing loss, the hearing areas in the brain do not get stimulated with all these sounds or speech and begin to reorganize and tune into other tasks to function optimally. It may then use those hearing areas in the brain to rather focus on vision or smell. Hearing loss can then cause a situation of “if you don’t use it, you will lose it…” This is because the hearing area in the brain is not being stimulated optimally with sound and your listening skills are not practiced to stay focussed.

Hearing aids can help to stimulate the hearing areas in the brain for better listening. That is why it is so important to start using hearing aids or other amplification devices as soon as you discover your hearing loss. Now that you better understand how hearing works you want to keep on stimulating the brain with sound so that your listening abilities stay sharp and tuned for hearing. Listening is all about the brain! 

How hearing aids and amplification can revive listening

Following a hearing aid fitting, many people recall that they were surprised at all the sounds that they could suddenly hear and they realize what they have been missing. During the early days after receiving a hearing aid or amplification, your brain gives a lot of attention to the new incoming sounds that it could not hear before. This stimulation of sound is good for the brain as it helps to tune into sound again. The early days and few weeks may be tiring, as the brain needs time to get used to all these sounds and add meaning to all the new information. You may, therefore, feel tired towards the end of the day while adapting to your hearing aids. Most people report that it gets easier to listen after a few weeks of consistent hearing aid use and that they feel less tired. It indicates that they have now acclimatized or adapted to the new sounds and improved hearing. It would be a good sign if you start to miss your hearing aids when they are not used. This is because listening has started to improve and the brain now realizes which information is important and which can be discarded. Important information will be speech sounds, conversations, music, and meaningful sounds. Information that is not so important will be less noticeable over time and include background noise and sounds not important for daily functioning.

The brain also helps to fill in the missing bits that you can’t hear so well. Better hearing helps the brain to do this. A properly fitted hearing aid will send a stronger or amplified signal to the brain that adds meaning to the signal over time and supports better listening. A combination of good-quality hearing aids and listening practice can, therefore, help to revive hearing and listening.

Cues and tips to be a better and more active listener

Active listening helps to support the brain with the hard work of making sense of conversation and adding meaning to a message. Getting better at listening and understanding how hearing works also helps to build better relationships with our loved ones and people we talk to. You can support your hearing and listening by being a better hearing “aide”. The following cues and tips can help for more active listening.

  • Listen with all your senses: You can show more interest when talking to other people by using verbal and non-verbal messages like eye contact, nodding your head, smiling, agreeing, or acknowledging that you understand them. Feedback like this will help the person that talks to you to feel more at ease and communicate easily, openly, and honestly.
  • Posture and body language: Information is not only conveyed by verbal messages; we all know how important non-verbal body language is for active listening. An attentive listener will lean into the conversation and show openness to receive a message.
  • Mirroring and reflection: We learn language through copying and imitation. To unconsciously mirror another person’s facial expressions encourage communication and shows that you are an active listener. These reflective expressions can also help to show sympathy and empathy during more difficult conversations. To repeat or rephrase what a speaker is saying is a very powerful skill that can reinforce the message of the speaker and demonstrate understanding and active listening.
  • Distraction: An active listener will be focused during conversation and not fidget, look at a clock or watch, play with their hair or fingers, or constantly look at their phone while talking. It can be very difficult to talk to someone who is distracted and not giving attention when you talk to them. Reading messages on your phone or browsing on your phone when socializing, can easily boomerang active listening and building strong relations with others.
  • Reinforcement and questioning: Elaborate and explain why you are agreeing with a certain point during a conversation to demonstrate active listening and keep the conversation going. Appropriate questions support active listening and interaction and help to clarify misunderstandings.
  • Remember/memory: Nowadays we are finding it harder to memorize and remember information because we have so many resources that help us to store information. Try and remember the topic of a conversation, details like names and ideas to show attentive listening, and encourage communication that supports memory and ideas.
  • Clarification and summarising: If you are unsure about a message, don’t shy away from asking questions to clarify and help the speaker to expand. If you missed a part of the conversation you can very specifically clarify by saying “I heard you are talking about your holiday, but missed where you have been?” It is much better to clarify than to keep on saying “Huh?” or “Excuse?”. You can also summarise to make sure you have heard correctly “Have I heard correctly that you will visit me on Tuesday during the afternoon?”

“I am all ears!”

Playing it by ear means you have no game plan – you act spontaneously and according to the situation. That will work well when you are a musician and can play a beautiful piece of music by ear. To be an active listener and help your brain with hearing, you need to have a strategy and fully understand how hearing works. You need to attentively listen to conversations and sounds. “Are you listening to me?”, “Yes, I am all ears!”

Hearing expert and article writer Elrietha Olivier

Written byElrietha Olivier

B. Speech Therapy & Audiology; Masters in Clinical Pastoral Care

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