Thursday, June 6, 2019

Mistaking Fogginess for Deafness

When I was in my 20s, most of my friends were 80 and 90 year old semi-forgotten jazz luminaries. And I noticed a correlation: old people who stayed sharp didn't say "huh?' a lot. Old people who were slowing down, mentally, did. This made me suspect that hearing wasn't the problem.

If you simply slow down your speech, old people's hearing often works much better...even if you haven't raised you voice. The problem is often cognitive bandwidth rather than hearing. As your mind slows down, there are fewer available resources to process conversation in real time. The result is a buffer overload. Hence "huh?"

Much - perhaps most - old-age deafness should be attributed to deficient mental processing.

Of course, some old people really are deaf. But most of them are at least somewhat deaf, and that's the confounding factor. Their hearing being marginal, it's easy for them (as well as their doctors) to blame aural deficit. If someone with crappy hearing says "huh?" a lot, it's a perfectly reasonable conclusion, and there's no machine that can intercept brain signals and measure how much of the problem is in the hearing versus the processing.

So we buy into the myth that old people who say "huh?" are having problems hearing. Try slowing down, and see if it mysteriously improves. Or, even better, speak in canned clich├ęs. When unsurprising things are said, that poses less of a challenge for sluggish brains (this is why we instinctively speak in predictable ways with babies and very young children).

More Observations On Aging
My Quora answer to "What does it feel like to be old?"


I have the opposite problem, myself. I have more than 50% hearing loss, but nobody ever believes I didn't hear them. So whenever I ask people to repeat themselves, they always, always rephrase with 1. simpler words and/or 2. greater politeness. I've considered pinning a button to my lapel with the words "Seriously Fucking Deaf".

2 comments:

Display Name said...

Might have to test this one out at the library today. Is anyone else annoyed when people say "I'm sorry?" when they need you to repeat something they didn't quite hear all of?

Display Name said...

I need a sign that says it's skin cancer. It's not shingles it's not contagious no my friend didn't punch me and I didn't fall down. the last person that asked me if it was shingles I wanted to pat her hand gently and say yes. I do have a lot of fun threatening conan the librarian though. Cops pull people over right and left here and there are plenty of dui check points. If conan is riding with me I just murmur gently when we see the flashing lights "don't worry I'll just tell them you smacked me a good one." So much fun. I could have tried out your advice at the diner yesterday. Haven't been to the diner in ages. It is frozen in time there. Classic salad bar (one trip only) and I got fried flounder and sweet potato fries. CDC got shepherd's pie with mushy green beans and home fries. It was bliss. R and S Keystone if you ever get up my way. Was reflecting later that evening and it dawned on me: No cell phones being used!!!!!!!!!!!!!I am so going back there soon. In the fall they have ground cherry pie.

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