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“The Ants Are My Friends” and Other Lies Our Ears Tell Us

March 13th, 2013 by qcurrie

Have you ever had a favorite song you love to sing along with, fully convinced that you have accurately committed this song to memory only to find out after years of singing it that you had some of the words wrong?  You’ve heard this song for years and you are 100% certain that you know what the singer is singing but in reality you are wrong.  I have had this happen to me and it must happen to people quite often.  In fact, it happens often enough that there are even humorous websites devoted to this phenomenon.  For example, instead of hearing “The answer my friend is blowing in the wind” in Bob Dylan’s famous song, people instead have heard “The Ants are my friends.  They’re blowing in the wind”.  Instead of the lyrics “There’s a bad moon on the rise” in CCR’s classic song, people have heard “There’s a bathroom on the right”.  As hilarious as these mistakes may be, they highlight a very interesting ability of the auditory system to help us cope with everyday life and also how that same ability can work against us.

Everybody has trouble hearing at one time or another.  Whether you have “normal” hearing or some degree of hearing loss, spoken language isn’t always clear.  When we’re listening to someone and we can’t quite make out what they’re saying, the auditory and language systems of our brains must make an educated guess or admit defeat.  This process happens continually and constantly every waking minute of every day.  Sometimes the speech sounds are clear and we can easily interpret the speaker’s message but other times our brain needs to put a lot of extra effort into filling in the missing information.  The human brain is exceptionally good at filling in the blanks.  In fact, researchers have found that you can insert rather large chunks of random noise into spoken words and not lose the message.  In many cases test subjects are completely unaware of the manipulation.  That’s how good we are at coping.

But, this “filling in” comes with one major problem:  We can’t tell when it’s happening and we are often utterly convinced that we are 100% correct (like the favorite song lyrics) even though we may be very wrong.  In addition, this constant extra processing by the auditory system takes effort and resources.  Hearing loss causes us to miss certain key speech sounds more often, which then puts a greater demand on the brain to “fill in”.  As an Audiologist, I’m always amazed at how clients often struggle for years with a hearing loss before seeking help.  Part of that reluctance to act comes from the amazing “filling in” ability of the brain.  They can’t hear what they’re missing because their auditory system is working overtime to create something out of next to nothing.  They believe the lie created by their own perception and are convinced that they are doing o.k.  On the positive side, I’m equally amazed at how clients with very dramatic hearing losses can cope so well after being fit with hearing instruments.  Just a few extra consonants here and there can make such a difference.  It’s amazing how resilient we can be when we look after ourselves and give our ears the sounds they are craving.  Our brain’s natural listening abilities (skills that we’ve practiced our entire life) can continue to do the job, with a little help.

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