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October 5, 2021

Hearing vs. Understanding: A complex relationship

Hearing isn’t just about your ears – your brain plays a big part in how you process and understand sound. Dr. Timothy Steele explains the connection between hearing and understanding and how hearing aids can play a crucial role in this process for many people.


Imagine yourself in a bustling restaurant.

The server comes over to tell you what the daily specials are. You try to pick up what she’s saying, but there are so many other sounds interfering. There’s a pair of children fighting two tables behind you, a baby fussing in another corner of the restaurant, the seamless clinking of glassware throughout the dining room, the stacking of plates and the clinking of silverware. Did the server say ham or lamb? Is she asking to take your order? She’s speaking to you, and you can hear her words, but they aren’t quite making sense.

Understanding is about hearing and focus

This is the difference between hearing and understanding. The effort required to hear a sound compared to the effort required to process it is exponential.

Consider how speech sound reaches you: The words your server is saying must go through your middle ear, inner ear, and auditory nerve to the brain, where the brain must then process those sounds for you to register and comprehend. All that background noise in the restaurant — children, dishes, other activity — causes a multitude of disruptions, which can interfere with your ability to understand.

Difficulty understanding speech occurs even for people with “normal” hearing. If someone is concentrating on another activity, the brain may be too occupied in one area to assign meaning to the sounds we hear.

Have you ever been driving and unconsciously turned down the radio so that you could focus more on finding your destination?

That’s your brain telling you that it needs more space to process one kind of information. It works vice versa: If you’re concentrating on listening to breaking news on the radio, you’re probably not paying close attention to how you’re driving.

Navigating between meaningful sounds and background noise

If you have hearing loss caused by inner ear damage, or if your brain has particular difficulty processing sound, speech becomes even more difficult to comprehend. This is where your hearing aid specialist steps in. In a soundproof room, your hearing specialist specialist, among other things, will assess your ability to recognize sounds and understand words presented with a comfortable volume. Following this hearing evaluation, your hearing specialist will review your hearing aid options.

Here’s why the better hearing aid is worth the investment: Every hearing aid contains a processor, which is designed to help you pick up speech in a noisy situation. It won’t block out background noise, but the more sophisticated the processor, the more likely you are to pick up the essential sounds.

Plenty of other factors affect how you benefit from hearing aids, including:

  • Your residual hearing ability
  • The listening environment
  • Your hearing aid technology
  • How that technology is working.

It’s important, too, that you wear your hearing aids every day; the more you wear them, the easier it becomes for them to assist your brain in processing sound. That way, when a complicated or especially noisy situation arises, your hearing aids will be able to help you comprehend the essentials.

Do you have trouble comprehending speech or sounds in noisy environments? Request an appointment with your hearing care professional today to see how the right hearing aids can help!