My Ears Are Fine, But I Can’t Understand What You’re Saying

Alright, my ears aren’t 100% fine, but they are more than fine enough to be able to hear and notice the distinct sound of specifically my parents’ car pulling up. My left ear mostly doesn’t pick up low frequencies as well, but my intermittent hearing loss isn’t attributed to the functioning of my ears at all.

I have a lot of trouble understanding people in noisy environments. I even have trouble understanding people if we’re the only ones in the room and there’s only some music playing at low volume. The other person might be speaking clearly and might be louder than the music is, but that doesn’t solve everything just yet.

No, my difficulty in hearing what other people say in such environments is attributed to something else entirely, something that isn’t caused by my ears themselves and doesn’t care for decibels: my own brain. ‘Well duh,’ you might think, ‘if it’s not your ears it must be your brain.’ To some people that might seem like a logical conclusion, but there are enough people out there who underestimate the role your brain plays in hearing.

You see, your ears are mostly just the things picking up signals, picking up stimuli from the environment. After all, sound is nothing more than vibrations, and all the ears do is translate those into an electrical signal that is then sent to the brain. The ear doesn’t choose which signals to send through and which ones not to. It just perceives anything within its range, which for most humans is anything that lies between 20 and 20,000 Hz and that’s above 0 dB (and yes, there’s a lot going on below 0 dB that we can’t hear, but that’s just because decibel is a relative scale that uses our human hearing threshold as zero).

The brain is the one that actually makes sense of those signals and gives them meaning. The brain is the one that interprets all those translated vibrations transmitted to it by the ears (or actually, the auditory nerve), and tells you what is what. It tells you that one thing is the dripping of the kitchen faucet, and the other thing is a car driving past your house. It tells you that the vibrations coming from the orchestra aren’t all one sound, but rather a composite sound made up of all the individual parts of the orchestra.

But at any given moment, there’s usually a lot of sound coming in at your ears. Just take a moment right now, and try to notice how many different, individual sounds you can recognize around you. Maybe the humming of the fan or the ventilation in your office. Maybe you can hear the faint noise of cars driving on the road outside. Maybe there are people talking in the hallway, maybe you hear birds outside, maybe the wind rustling through the trees.

Yet, while you were sitting (or standing, or lying down, I don’t judge) and reading this post, most of those sounds will have completely bypassed your awareness, just like your nose has bypassed your visual awareness. Because yes, whenever your eyes are open, your nose is right there, taking up a rather large chunk of your vision, no matter where you look, but you can thank your brain for filtering that out.

At any given moment, though your brain is being pelted by stimuli from all different sides, it tries to filter out anything that isn’t useful or meaningful, so all you consciously hear is whatever remains. And whatever remains, is further divided up into more important and less important stimuli, so the crunching of the cookie you’re eating doesn’t get as much attention as the sound of the video you’re watching.

But for some people, it’s not that easy. A sizable part of the population, including but certainly not limited to people with autism and/or AD(H)D like myself, has trouble processing that auditory information. Of course it’s different for everyone, but it’s a common sign for autism and AD(H)D to have difficulty processing auditory stimuli as efficiently and correctly as those without.

Me, for example, I have huge issues trying to understand someone in a noisy room, or with music in the background. I had always known that, but I attributed it to the 5-10% or something my left ear is missing, blaming it for screwing up my brain. Now I know that it has to do with the way my brain prioritizes different stimuli coming in.

Where ‘normal’ people (and I mean ‘normal’ only in the sense that they don’t have these auditory issues) are capable of subconsciously moving the music in the room to the background when someone starts speaking, my brain simply can’t. Not that well, at least. It’s like it’s trying to listen to both the music and the other person talking at the same time. Needless to say, that makes it hard to hear either of them.

In between writing this paragraph and the previous one, I turned on the fan a few meters away from me and I’m just having so much more trouble thinking when it concerns thoughts involving words. I think I changed tabs and started looking for new email at least three times just because I had so much trouble trying to come up with sentences that my brain just thought ‘nah, let’s go do something else that’s not as hard’.

Brains like mine have trouble discerning important stimuli from less important stimuli, so they both get equal treatment and attention. I’m possibly way more aware of the sound of the fan than someone without these issues might be, even though I do not choose to be. You could compare my hearing to being aware of seeing your own nose all day, and seeing it in the middle of everything you look at.

And for an auditory analogy, which is why I chose the image on top of this post, it’s like this: usually, when you go to a concert, the sound is mixed so that you hear the vocals more clearly and possibly a little louder than the rest, so you can understand what the vocalist is singing. But now, imagine that there are no sliders, and all instruments come in at the same volume. Maybe the drums come in even louder because they are loud. And imagine that those sliders would’ve been your only way of making out the vocals, but instead they just get drowned out by the noise. That’s kind of how my brain works. I’m simply not as able to tune out the drums and guitars, and not as able to have my brain zero in on the vocals.

When I listen to music, just plain on Spotify or something, I usually don’t even hear the lyrics. I hear that someone is singing, I usually pick up some words, especially in the chorus because it repeats a couple of times and it’s catchy, but if I don’t actively and very intently sit down to listen to what the vocalist is singing, I just plain don’t hear what it’s about. I might pick up enough to know that it’s not about a time machine, but not enough to get the actual meaning. My brain loves music so much that it just sees the actual words it’s hearing as less important than the melodies and the rhythm.

Something a lot of people struggle with too, is trying to study from a textbook while there’s music playing. Especially if it has lyrics, but that’s mostly due to a conflict in a part of your brain called Wernicke’s area, which is tasked with comprehending written and spoken language. When the trouble arises with music without lyrics, however, it might be a simple matter of the music taking up so much working memory that reading, and especially studying, become a lot harder.

Of course, almost everyone has trouble understanding one another at a very loud concert. Even if someone screams loudly into your ear (though you might have to reconsider what kinds of concerts you go to if it’s that loud, you only have one pair of ears and you should be careful with them), and you can clearly hear their tone of voice, it could still be very hard to make out actual words. There’s too much going on for your brain’s language processing systems to work properly. You can thank trouble in your auditory processing systems for that too, though at that level, most people would have trouble.

For me however, and people like me, that threshold can be far, far lower. It might be as simple as turning on a fan and immediately having trouble thinking in words. It might be as simple as misunderstanding someone who is right next to you in the car because of the noise from the wheels on the road. And for others, who have to repeat themselves more often with me than with other people, it can be frustrating. And in part, I get that.

If you don’t suffer from these issues yourself, it might be baffling or hard to understand how it can be so hard to hear what you’re saying. You might be confused as to why you can understand the other person perfectly well, while you have to repeat yourself after replying to that person at the same volume. As it frequently happens in life, things you don’t understand, things you can’t fathom or imagine, can be irritating or frustrating. ‘How can you not understand?’, ‘how hard is it to hear what I’m saying?’.

It can be especially baffling if the hearing loss the other person exhibits isn’t proportional – at least according to your hearing range – to the amount of added sound after turning on the fan. For you, it might have become only a little harder to understand the other person, but for the other person, it might have become a lot harder to understand you, and it just doesn’t gel. But there’s some interesting psychology behind that frustration. Or at least, I hope you find it interesting, because I most certainly do.

You see, brains are remarkably good, far better than you might think, at seeing and inferring patterns, even if it’s far from perfect. It’s constantly calculating, comparing, trying to build up those patterns in your head from everything it experiences. Maybe you’ve noticed that you sometimes wake up just a minute before your alarm usually goes, or you get up from your seat precisely at the right moment before the oven beeper goes off because you had a feeling it should be done right about now. That’s your brain at work, having learned when the alarm goes off or how long it takes to grill your veggies.

Your brain is so good at building up patterns that it continually does it without you even noticing. If it weren’t for your brain’s patterns, you wouldn’t notice when a friend of yours does something out of character, or you wouldn’t be confused if the bus to your work suddenly took a different route. You wouldn’t notice that your computer is being slower than usual today if you don’t know what ‘usual’ is.

It does the same thing when it comes to ratios and proportions. Because you, and most other people around you, lose a certain amount of hearing when the fan gets turned on, it sticks out like a sore thumb when someone else loses a different amount of hearing in that situation. You might not even know that it’s because of that difference in proportion that you suddenly notice that that person is hearing less than you expected them to, because that expectation was most likely a subconscious one.

And here’s the crux: the mind tends to respond to that frustration of expectations with, well, frustration. In some cases, people might respond with curiosity, wanting to know why something is different, but I’ve noticed (which is also a pattern subconsciously constructed by my brain) that that happens less often with situations that are disadvantageous for yourself, that somehow cause you to have to do more work than you had to otherwise. And having to repeat yourself is just such a thing.

But hopefully now you know a bit more about how our brains work, and a bit more about yourself too. The trouble is that we can’t help our auditory processing issues. We, especially those that are aware of the problem, already do everything we can to pay attention to the best of our ability, because of course we don’t like misunderstanding people either. It’s not our fault, and even though it’s not your fault either, a life with less frustration is probably an easier and more enjoyable one. You’ll not only be doing us, but mostly yourself a favor.

Spread the love!