Siri and I have two things in common. Both of us are fairly adept at tracking down information to answer other people’s questions. Both of us have trouble hearing in a crowded room.
Yesterday I did some Internet surfing, curious to learn if a name exists for this difficulty, and, more important, if solutions for this difficulty have been found. Some sites suggested that this difficulty is caused by hearing loss. I am sure that’s not the case with me, because I can recall having this difficulty even in childhood. For that matter, my hearing in childhood was unusual, as a classroom test indicated that I could hear much higher pitches of sound than most of my classmates. This ability evidently has a genetic connection, as most of my family also hears high pitches. Did you know that the Beatles included the sound of a dog whistle at the end of the last track of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? Do you know many people who can hear that whistle? My kindred can.
Hearing high-pitched noises is not always a good ability to possess. I can hear light bulbs, computers, and appliances that are silent for most people. I remember a singing refrigerator that only a few people could hear—those who couldn’t hear it thought we were inventing a story. The refrigerator alternated among three pitches, almost pleasantly musical. The fluorescent lights at work hum in a monotone that can be distracting, almost painful, when there are no other noises in the room to mask the sound.
But I digress. After skipping the web sites that suggested hearing loss, I found others that described “the cocktail party problem.” It turns out that the “problem” is not that of people like me who cannot focus on one person’s voice when several people are talking. The “problem” is finding an explanation for the fact that most people can filter background noise and hear and understand the one voice they want to hear. Machines like Siri still cannot do that, and researchers want to know why people can filter unwanted noise so they can improve machines. So far research has indicated that the difference is in the brain and not in the ears. Studies with human subjects and with mice are focusing more specifically on the brains of the listeners to determine exactly how the brain filters sounds according to the desire of the listeners.
As I did my research, I wondered if any link exists between “the cocktail party problem” which I have (which is the opposite of the “problem” being studied) and the autism spectrum. Autistic people tend to be overwhelmed by sensory input; that is one of the key signs and symptoms of autism. As far as I could determine, no researcher has explored that connection. If anyone out there is looking for a thesis topic for an advanced degree in psychology or in audiology, let me make that suggestion…
Meanwhile, I continue coping as I have always coped. I maintain eye contact with the person I want to hear, and I do my best to read his or her lips during conversation. I also nod and smile a lot, or I try to match his or her facial expression without being obvious in my mimicry. No doubt from time to time I have been guilty of an inappropriate response, but everyone makes that kind of mistake occasionally.
Now if I could just pass a city ordinance to ban leaf-blowers…. J.