Growing Up Hearing Impaired – How Has That Changed My World and My Brain?

June 6, 2024 at 2:38 PM
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Growing Up Hearing Impaired – How Has That Changed My World and My Brain?

By Dani Mills UA’24 and Jim Stellar

While growing up hearing impaired, I (DM) had many people ask me if I can still hear normally. I was born with bilateral hearing loss so my version of normal hearing is very different from others. My mother first noticed something was off with my hearing when I would react to my dad’s voice but never acknowledged her’s. I received my first pair of hearing aids at 9-months old. Since then, I’ve only experienced “normal” hearing through my hearing aids. When people ask me “do these hearing aids allow you to hear normally?”, all I can tell them is that I’ve never experienced what normal hearing sounds like. For me, what I hear through my hearing aids is normal. However, from my experience and stories I’ve been told, hearing aids do not compare to what non-hearing impaired people would consider normal.

From this start, we are going to jump now to a quick and interesting psychological illusion where your attention alters your perception – in plain sight. The McGurk effect, as shown in this brief video, is one where a speaker starts out saying the phoneme “ba.” But part way through, the facial movements are changed to “fa” and surprisingly your auditory perception also changes to “fa” unless you close your eyes and then you hear the original “fa” phoneme. When JS teaches this effect in his introductory psychology class, he points out that we often look at the mouth of someone speaking to us and lip-read while we listen. What is surprising here may be how powerful this “lip-reading” attention has become in us, even when we can hear. One wonders how the brain’s circuits have changed as a result of a life-time of bringing these two senses together in “listening.” From here, we go back to DM’s lifetime of experience with hearing aids.

But first, how does hearing loss itself change brain circuits especially in infancy? Since my auditory area was impaired, my brain has reorganized itself in response to that deprivation during infancy. In an interesting finding, they found that the auditory fibers expanded a bit into higher frontal cortex areas including some that were involved with the default mode network.

Before I received hearing aids, I adapted to relying on my other senses in order to “hear.” So when I started wearing hearing aids, I still used my other senses because I wasn’t used to using my hearing aids. After a few years, I self-taught myself how to lip-read because I couldn’t always rely on my hearing aids to allow me to hear everything being said. This is something that everyone does to some extent, as discussed above in the case of the McGurk effect. Even today when I take my hearing aids out, the only way I’m able to understand anyone is through lip-reading. I also find myself using my sight to read people’s body language and expressions to help understand what they might be saying. Throughout childhood and even today, I cannot hear which direction sounds are coming from when wearing hearing aids, so I rely heavily on my sight to be aware of things occurring around me. By now, it’s an automatic response to use my sight more than my hearing when hearing sounds.

To go back to the general theme of this blog, we write generally about how experiences in college might change the student’s brain circuits to adapt to a workplace-career path – like going to graduate school. This is something that DM will experience next year when she begins her graduate work in Social Welfare. That adaptation under training will bring to her the professionalism of the field or at least the beginning of it. The hope is that when DM settles into that professional development, she will find that it matches whatever adaptations she has already gone through in college. However, with her development as someone with hearing loss, she may have other adaptations that other successful college students do not have. Perhaps her reorganized brain from those early experiences could somehow play into what she brings to the field of Social Work.

Whatever DM brings, the need still exists to fit with who she is or who she will become as a social worker. This could also be helped by the way she has pre-explored those changes by having relevant experiences and by talking about them with someone who is a Social Work professional themselves.

Our goal as blog writers is to come back to this issue as DM gets into her actual graduate training. And we think that perhaps her altered developmental history will provide insights into that if not at a brain/skill level, then perhaps as a system/social-work level given her early and sustained history in working with the medical establishment to have a normal childhood and college experience – or at least so close that even JS did not know about her early hearing impairment until we started writing this blog.

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