Here’s a reason you should always bring your partner to a cocktail party: As the '80s hair band music pumps and the voices in the background all sound like indistinguishable blah blah blah — with your loved one there, you’ll be able to understand what at least one person is saying.
Neuroscientists have long known about the “cocktail party problem” — where a roomful of talking people make picking up the words of one particular person difficult for anybody. And it gets even worse in middle age.
A Canadian researcher shed some new light on the condition at a meeting of neuroscientists this week, highlighting a touch of good news about the accuracy of auditory perception as we age. Yes, we are all going to have less acute hearing when we get older, but the sound of a familiar voice can help compensate for that loss.
At the Canadian Association for Neuroscience annual meeting in Montreal, Queen’s University scientist Ingrid Johnsrude said despite reduced hearing accuracy shared by all of us as we age, the voices of long-time spouses are still so distinct that people can pick them out of a crowd.
The voices of couples, ages 44 to 79, were recorded saying a variety of sentences containing trigger words, followed by color and number words. When listeners heard a trigger word, they were supposed to pay attention to the colors and numbers that followed and indicate them on a computer screen.
But listeners had to contend with other “masking” voices on the same recording to pick out the sentences with the triggers. When strangers said the sentences with trigger words amid the sound of other voices, the test subjects weren’t very accurate. But when their spouses said the sentences, their accuracy shot up.
In other words, “hearing gets 'blurry' with age,” Johnsrude told TODAY.com. “Sounds that are crisply resolved by a young ear ‘smear together’ in an older one.” But the voice of a spouse can still come through loud and clear. We compensate with loss by using experience.
That’s important because hearing and comprehension involve much more than our brain’s auditory cortex, the part of the brain critical to understanding language. We listen and make sense of what we hear with parts of our brain’s frontal regions, the seat of higher-order thinking.
Sadly, as we age, higher-order thinking tends to become a little duller, too. That’s why simply putting on a hearing aid doesn’t solve the whole problem.
“We can compensate for hearing loss by providing hearing aids to restore hearing to the threshold of a 20-year-old, but you still don’t have the speech perception of a 20-year-old,” Mitchell Sommers, a professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, who has long studied aging and speech recognition, said.
Much listening in the modern world is “effortful.” When we struggle against distractions or need to pickup fine technical details, we use more brain power. Experience eases some of that burden. And knowing just how much effort is required through brain imaging studies could help improve hearing aid design so devices can be tailored to individual needs.
Older people not only benefit from listening experience with individual people, but with language itself, Sommers said.
“If you ask older and younger people to identify the word ‘shark’ within background noise, there will be a 25 percent difference between younger and older and that’s mostly because of hearing loss,” he said. “But if you take that same word, and tack it onto the end of a sentence like ‘I was attacked by a shark,’ both groups will improve in perception, but older people will benefit much more to the point that age difference is reduced or eliminated.”
So while less accurate hearing is inevitable with age, experience with people we love, and use of the language, can help.
Brian Alexander is a frequent contributor to NBC News and a co-author of “The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction.”