FUEL for thought when listening is an effort

By Kathy Costa, Senior Product Manager, Oticon Inc.

You’re an avid sports fan who is invited to a small dinner party. Guests are engaged in a lively discussion of the finer points of modern art. As a person with hearing loss, you strain to keep up with the conversation. The effort is exhausting and soon you’re too tired to follow the discussion and simply ‘tune out.’

Imagine the same scenario, except this time the topic is great moments in sports history. Again, you have to work hard to hear but now you don’t tune out. You’re working hard – and still tired at the end of the evening – but somehow you seem to have the energy to keep up with the conversation.

In each environment, the challenges – a noisy gathering with multiple speakers - are identical. So why are you more exhausted, more quickly in the first listening situation? And what explains your ability to work harder, for a longer time in the second scenario? 

Why motivation steers your effort to new heights

Scientists from a variety of healthcare disciplines participated in the Fifth Eriksholm Workshop on “Hearing Impairment and Cognitive Energy” that was held in June 2015 at the Eriksholm Research Centre. The purpose of the Workshop was to come to a consensus about what is known about listening effort. The consensus of the workshop is now available in a just-published special issue of Ear and Hearing. The scientists hypothesized that listening effort might depend on more than hearing loss and the difficulties of the listening situation. It might also be influenced by a person’s motivation to invest the mental energy needed to follow speech in challenging listening situations. 

The researchers explored the concept of “effortful listening” – an individual’s decision to deliberately allocate mental resources to overcome listening obstacles, such as noise and multiple speakers, when they are motivated to hear. For example, for a sports fan, record-setting sports statistics might be worth the investment in listening effort – a discussion of Cubist painting, not so much. 

Freeing up the cognitive resources for more energy

The effort it takes to listen – listening effort – is a common complaint among people with hearing loss. When listening is compromised by hearing loss, you have to work hard to understand what is said. That’s because your ears and your brain work together as a system, with your brain doing the heavy lifting. When your brain works hard to hear, you use up cognitive energy.
Oticon’s “brain first” hearing instruments with BrainHearing™ technology are designed to support the hard work your brain does. With BrainHearing™ technology, the mental effort you need to understand speech in noise is minimized so you can conserve your cognitive resources for other tasks.

Oticon recently introduced Oticon Opn™, the first hearing aid proven make it easier on the brain. By making it easier to hear in difficult listening situations, Opn not only helps you hear better, it reduces listening effort by 20%* as measured by pupillometry so you have more energy for other tasks, such as remembering what was said.

Innovative model charts three listening dimensions: motivation, demand and effort

The FUEL framework presented in the Ear and Hearing article shows that listening effort is coupled both to demanding listening situations and to an individual’s motivation or lack of motivation. It shows that the listening effort individuals chose to put in demanding a listening situation depends on their motivation.

This may also explain why people choose to abandon a social gathering. If it is too demanding or not motivating enough, it might not be worth putting in the extra effort. The opposite might also be true. If a hearing aid can reduce the demands, then the motivation may be enough to stay in the social gathering and to spend that extra effort necessary.  This insight may influence the design of new hearing rehabilitation therapies and technologies that will enable hearing-impaired people worldwide to hear better, with less effort and fatigue – even in challenging environments. 

In the future, sports fans equipped with advanced hearing aid technology that reduces demands might find it easier to stay with the conversation - whether the topic is soccer highlights or abstract painting – with a lot less effort and more energy to remember what was said.  What they choose to remember, of course, will still be up to them! 

Read the special edition of Ear & Hearing here

*Compared to Alta2 Pro