What is Cocktail Party Deafness?
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  • Post last modified:August 1, 2020

Whether the name is familiar or not, everyone has experienced cocktail party deafness. To help understand the cocktail party deafness definition, imagine yourself at a bar with a group of friends.

As the night evening goes on, the environment may seem to get louder and louder. Whenever you try to listen to someone standing next to you speak, it’s a struggle. There are too many other loud noises in the environment which makes it difficult to filter them out and hear speech.

To define cocktail party deafness, it is the inability to discern one desired sound stimulus, while simultaneously attempting to filter out other sounds in the area. For individuals with some degree of hearing loss, Cocktail Party Deafness worsens their condition, making it even more difficult to hear.

Research on Cocktail Party Deafness

Back in the 1950s, Edward Colin Cherry coined the term cocktail party problem in response to the ongoing problem air traffic controllers had. In the control tower, workers struggled with focusing and separating single pilot’s voices as many pilots had their voices played over one loudspeaker. From there, Cherry and others began experimenting with how and why cocktail party effect deafness occurs.

Recently, a University of California Berkley researcher, Chris Holdgraf, observed how neuroplasticity affects one’s ability to tune their brains to recognize speech. Holdgraf played muffled and mixed speech into the patient’s ears intended to be inaudible. Then, patients received a clear signal of the same message, and again, the garbled message.

The last, garbled message was easily understandable, showing how the brain adapts and tunes itself to understand hearing. Individuals’ brains learn to recognize sounds, and effectively filter background noises to hear the desired sound.

Cocktail Party Deafness and Hearing Impairments

research on Cocktail Party Deafness

As hearing loss affects just under 50 million Americans, it is no surprise that Cocktail Party Deafness is a phenomenon that needs addressing. Individuals with hearing loss who frequent social gatherings be it a conference, dinner party, or other, often struggle to listen to people speaking. With other noise in the environment, their already impaired hearing is put at a greater disadvantage.

People with hearing loss have a hard time with the clarity and loudness of sounds already. When multiple people are talking and other sounds are present, it can prove especially difficult to join in conversations, speak one-on-one, and feel comfortable.

Historically speaking, older hearing aid models tended to simply amplify all surrounding sounds. Thus, even individuals with hearing aids were unable to discern voices from other background noise.

How to Combat Cocktail Party Deafness

Wilford Hall team treats ENT patients in Honduras

The past decade has seen advancements in technology, algorithm development, and subsequently, the quality of hearing aids. Now, most hearing aids on the market are digital hearing aids. This means the hearing aids utilize a digital chip that can process sounds before amplification occurs. During this signal processing, hearing aids take advantage of state-of-the-art algorithms that assist with noise reduction to remove background noise.

Modern digital hearing aids help fight the cocktail party effect. Individuals wearing two digital hearing aids that can communicate with each other are rewarded in a listening experience that is clearer and amplified. For people with hearing loss, struggling with cocktail party deafness is no longer an issue when they wear digital hearing aids with noise reduction technology.

Future Directions

To combat cocktail party deafness, scientists have begun to explore a new technology called adultery attention decoding. Small-scale trials for this technology have already happened and proven successful. However, the technology does not seem likely to become widespread anytime soon.

AAD attempts to solve the cocktail party deafness through monitoring an individual’s brain waves. Essentially, a device would take in incoming sounds, process them separately, and use a computer algorithm to detect which sound the user is trying to listen to.

The algorithm creates a data-backed estimation to enhance and amplify one sound for the user to hear. The algorithm works by observing neural activity and choosing whichever sound seemed most alike to what the brain attempted to process.

Hopefully, this technology will see improvements and widescale usage in the future. For now, individuals can only hope to train their brains by themselves the way patients of Chris Holdgraf did. 

Cocktail Party Deafness in Review

People have been struggling with cocktail party deafness for centuries—at least as long as large social gatherings have been common. Attempting to have a one-on-one conversation in a loud environment is nearly hopeless for many individuals, hearing impaired or not.

Josh Roberts

Josh spent many years of his life working in an industrial environment where hearing protection is paramount to workplace safety. Since then he has been on a mission to share how important taking care of your hearing is for living a great life.

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