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Not Just for Sleeping: White Noise Can Improve Your Hearing

Do you have trouble sleeping? Do you turn on relaxing sounds before bed? White noise is used by many to drift off to dreamland at night with machines and even smartphone applications replicating the noise, but a new study by the University of Basel has found that white noise may be able to do much more than help you catch some Z’s. Though it is essentially an extra background noise, researchers have concluded that it can make hearing pure sounds more precise, a realization with the possibility of aiding in the future development of cochlear implants.

How Is White Noise Special?

Most of us associate white noise with the sound an old television set makes without a signal, but white noise is far different than other noise. By definition, white noise is described as a random signal made up of sounds from all the frequencies the human ear can hear, but at the same exact intensity. How does that help you sleep and hear? Since it is created from all of the frequencies the ear and brain can perceive, no sound is uniquely distinct, turning everything you hear into a blurred “hissing” or “shushing” sound. This continuous sound makes it much easier for us to sleep through things such as a door slamming or a ringing phone, as they are folded into the blur and muffled. Next time you put on white noise before going to bed, remember that you are hearing every sound from every frequency between 20Hz to 20,000Hz all at once.

University of Basel’s Findings

Your brain has an extraordinary ability to pick out relevant information from less relevant background noise thanks to an area that processes auditory stimuli called the auditory cortex. Led by Professor Dr.Tania Rinaldi Barkat from the Department of Biomedicine, the University of Basel’s team investigated sound perception and sound discrimination in a challenging sound environment.
Past studies have concluded that the distinction between sounds becomes more difficult the closer they are in frequency, which led researchers to believe that introducing white noise would make the task even more challenging. Despite their beliefs, the opposite was observed, with research concluding that “the brain’s ability to distinguish subtle tone differences improved when white noise was added to the background. Compared to a quiet environment, the noise thus facilitated auditory perception.” But how?

White Noise Reduced Neuronal Activity

Data presented by the group had found that white noise reduced the activity of the nerve cells in the auditory cortex by a significant margin. In contradictory fashion, this inhibition of the neuronal activity led to a more precise perception of pure tones. We found that less overlap occurred between populations of neurons during two separate tone representations,” stated Dr. Barkat. “As a result, the overall reduction in neuronal activity produced a more distinct tone representation.”

This Conclusion May Help In The Future

According to Dr. Barkat, it is possible that cochlear implants could use an effect similar to white noise in order to improve the frequency resolution and in turn, the hearing of their users. To determine whether white noise may help you, speak to a hearing health professional about possible options.

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The Future Is Today: Brain-Controlled Hearing Aids

When you imagine what the future will be like in, say, 20 years, what do you see? Pop culture fosters expectations of flying cars, personal jetpacks, hoverboards, and much more. Some recent technological advances even seem like something you would find in a science fiction novel, not in real life—like self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality technologies.
Another futuristic advancement that may soon be a reality is more closely related to current hearing devices than to flying cars: brain-controlled hearing aids. Hearing aids have already seen numerous advances and developments in recent years, making them more effective than ever before. Today’s hearing aids are smaller, more comfortable, more discreet, and more powerful than those of years past.
Even with recent advances, hearing aids are still imperfect. One area where hearing aid users often notice a big difference from before they wore or needed hearing aids is in listening to a speaker when other noise is present. In a person with normal hearing, your brain distinguishes between the target speaker and all other noises, allowing you to focus on the target and minimize your attention to other speakers or sounds.
However, hearing aids cannot automatically perform this same function. If you increase the volume on your hearing aid in an effort to better hear the target speaker, you are also increasing the volume on all of the background noise. Some hearing aids allow the user to identify a target speaker by turning their head or gaze towards the target speaker, or by manually selecting the target speaker. These features are helpful yet imperfect; if the hearing aid user cannot maintain a gaze in the direction of the target speaker, does not want to use manual selections, or the target speaker is very close to another speaker, these features come up short.
Enter brain-controlled hearing aids. Previous research has determined that when a person focuses their listening efforts on a certain speaker in a noisy environment, their brain waves track the voice of the target speaker. The aim of a brain-controlled hearing aid is to monitor the brainwaves of the user in order to facilitate hearing and amplifying the voice of the target speaker.
Although much research and development remains to be explored in this field, recent research has shown promise in separating and amplifying the sound of a target speaker among background noise and other speakers. In a 2019 experiment, researchers used an auditory attention decoding (AAD) process to detect and amplify a target speaker among mixed background noise. The study participants indicated that it was significantly easier to follow the voice of the target speaker in the AAD-enhanced audio than in the original mixed audio. This advance can be used in brain-controlled hearing aids to amplify the voice of the target speaker and enable the listener to better follow a specific voice.
One major obstacle that remains to be overcome by researchers is determining a noninvasive and nonintrusive way to monitor the brain signals of the hearing aid user. This, along with an AAD process that accurately and rapidly identifies the target speaker, will present a challenge for researchers and developers. Still, the promise of brain-controlled hearing aids is very real and is closer than we may realize today.
For more information about brain-controlled hearing aids and other exciting advancements in the audiology field, we encourage you to contact our hearing professional today.