Picture of a woman with illustation of a brain. Deteriorating brain function.

 

You’ve become quite adept at reading lips, even in dim light. It’s a skill you’ve practiced a bit more often lately–alas, out of necessity. Your hearing has been noticeably worse in the past few months (could be years if you’re really being honest). And you’re noticing other things too, though you keep telling yourself you’re just tired.

But there could be a little more going on, and it might have something to do with your brain. When your hearing starts to go, your brain starts to change.

It’s Called Neuroplasticity

We usually think about brains as pretty static: sure, maybe your behavior could change down the road but your brain–your brain stays the same. The notion is usually summed up by that saying about not teaching an old dog new tricks. Except that it’s not true.

Your brain is capable of monumental changes, sometimes at a moment’s notice. In some cases, even the fundamental structure of your brain can transform. It’s a property that scientists call neuroplasticity. (Scientists love their big words, it’s true.)

Essentially, neuroplasticity is just a scientific way of talking about how flexible your brain is. This flexibility has been well documented in children (for example, we know that long hours of watching TV or playing video games can result in physical changes to the brain over time). New research is shedding light on precisely what this neuroplasticity means for people with hearing loss.

Changing Gears

According to the most recent research, here’s what basically happens:

  • A typical human brain will have designated centers devoted to specific activities. Part of your brain handles deep thought, for example. Another part handles information from your eyes, another part interprets sounds.
  • In an individual with untreated hearing loss, the part of the brain that handles sounds isn’t as active. It doesn’t have much to do, since your body is directing few signals in that direction.
  • Over time, the brain will repurpose those listening-centers of your brain to instead interpret information coming from the eyes. In other words, your brain devotes more space and processing power to visual stimuli.

This type of mental elasticity had been known to occur in individuals who had complete or near-complete deafness. But scientists are now discovering the same thing happening in people who are exhibiting even the beginning signs of hearing loss.

That might help explain why your lip reading skills are suddenly much improved. Your brain is devoting more power to what you’re seeing. (Of course, it could be the practice, too–it’s hard to attribute any one thing on these changes in your brain.)

An Adjustment Period

The neuroplasticity on display in your brain is usually a good thing, helping you to adjust to changing circumstances. But researchers do point to a couple of moments when it could get a bit awkward.

Let’s say that you’re finally going to pick up a pair of hearing aids. You’re tired of reading lips, and who can blame you? But when you first put those hearing aids in, the clarity of speech is lacking–a lot. It’s hard for you to understand what anyone is saying, even though the volume of the speech seems okay.

This happens because the audio centers of your brain are accustomed to working with visual information, not audio stimuli. The pathways have been repurposed.

Your Brain Will Catch Up

The good news is that neuroplasticity can solve problems in two directions. When your ears start transmitting again, your brain will begin to change back. The areas responsible for interpreting sound will get back to doing what they do best. But that does take time, so it’s important to stick with your hearing aid while your brain makes the appropriate changes.

Neuroplasticity is just your brain’s way of trying to get you the information you need. And it’s happening all the time. So your brain will start to change when your hearing starts to go. The changes aren’t permanent–but that transformation does depend on what you do next.

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