I can't hear in this background noise - unbalanced hearing

Background noise can be a major problem when one conversation can't easily be distinguished from another or from the background noise.

A common cause is unbalanced hearing which occurs when the two ears hear differently in some way. This may be because there is a different degree of deafness in the two ears.

Suitably adjusted hearing aids in two ears rather than one can sometimes improve matters, but for me and for countless other deaf people, unbalanced hearing has to be lived with because one or both ears are damaged.


Two ways for normal hearing people to understand what unbalanced hearing is like

1. Get two portable radios and place them close together. Turn one of them on and tune it to a channel where there is speech rather than music. Adjust the volume so that when you move away, you can just understand what is being said. Now turn the radio off and do the same with the other radio. Finally turn both radios on together to the volume that you adjusted before and move away again. By being some distance away, both voices will seem to come from pretty well the same point, so you won't be able to focus on one rather than the other using the pin-pointing ability of your two ears. Can you now understand what either voice is saying? It isn't easy is it? After a few seconds you will probably feel that the point has been made, but keep the two radios going for ten minutes or so. By the end you will probably feel that you want to scream! At least you will be able to locate where the babble is coming from. People with unbalanced hearing hear it inside their heads.

2. Another helpful demonstrate is through an analogy with sight. Just as two balanced ears are necessary for pinpointing a source of sound, so are two eyes necessary to locate the precise position of any object. To see this for yourself, cover one eye and get someone to stand behind you and dangle a loop of wire in front of you sideways on. It is essential that you don't see the loop or its support in advance with your two eyes and that you don't see the hand at the time of the demonstration. Otherwise your brain will rely on its memory of sizes to estimate position, rather than on what a single eye will tell it. Then try to put a finger or pencil through the loop from left to right or right to left, not directly front-on. The chances are that you will fumble. If you really can put the pencil straight through the loop first time, your brain is almost certainly guessing correctly at some sizes somewhere. The reason for the fumbling is simply that one eye cannot pinpoint position, even though the brain can compensate to some extent using its understanding of relative sizes. The fumbling should indicate how someone with unbalanced hearing has to fumble in order to work out where sound is coming from. This may not matter too much if there is only one source of sound, but it matters a great deal when there are lots of competing sounds, like speech in a crowded room.

Why unbalanced hearing causes problems with background noise

Essentially two properly balanced ears enable people to identify the direction and position of a sound. Hence they can concentrate or pick out one source of sound separately from another. With unbalanced hearing, all the sounds around merge together and can't be distinguished.

Dramatic examples of unbalanced hearing

For me the effect of unbalanced hearing was dramatic, so easily recognisable. It was after an ear operation which drastically changed the hearing in one of my ears compared with the other. There were two telephones on my office desk and one was ringing - but I had no idea at all which one it was. This would have been inconceivable to me when my hearing in both ears, poor as it was, was reasonably balanced.

To illustrate the point further, I remember sitting in a corridor outside a number of doors behind which audiology consultants were taking patients. I was called from behind one of these doors, but I had no idea which one. I actually had to peep inside to check for some sort of recognition. (I have since wondered why the consultant, who was supposed to understand such things, didn't realise the problem and take alternative action, but to follow that train of thought here would be to digress.)

I also found, extremely disconcertingly, that sounds which once seemed to be over by the wall or outside the window now seemed to be inside my head because I could no longer position them.

Why unbalanced hearing can be slow to recognise

For many people the problem of unbalanced hearing develops slowly. They know that they increasingly dislike situations where a lot of noise is going on but they may not have analysed why. I was forced to recognise it for what it was because the difference between before after my operation was so dramatic.

Unbalanced hearing and social or group events

The most distressing outcome of unbalanced hearing is in situations where a number of conversations are going on together. The only way that anyone with badly unbalanced hearing can distinguish one voice from another is if it is louder or more strident. Even then, a babble of voices causes interference with the voice that someone is trying to concentrate on.

The only way to cope is through a great deal of concentration and a fair amount of guesswork. It is extremely tiring and not particularly successful. Often in such situations there is a delay between being asked a question and replying, which is because of having to interpret what is said before any reply is possible.

People suffering in this way can feel incompetent and isolated, and they can also believe - often correctly - that their behaviour is being interpreted as stupidity.

I remember someone announcing in a proud voice that she could home-in on one conversation and block out others at whim - as if it was a skill to be learnt. It didn't seem to occur to her, as it probably doesn't to most people, that some people simply don't have the physical equipment to 'hear' normally.

Unbalanced hearing and appreciation of music

Another problem with unbalanced hearing that is extremely distressing to anyone who appreciates music is that notes can be heard at different pitches in each ear. That is certainly the case for me; I have no idea of the actual pitch of a note and just mime when situations demand that I join in singing.

Coping strategies

On another page there are suggestions for how you can minimise the problem of unbalanced hearing in noisy situations. Yet another page suggests how other people can support someone with unbalanced hearing.

Disclaimer: The information on this site is for a lay audience and I cannot be responsible for errors or omissions. The views, strategies, advice and suggestions etc are based on my personal experience and are not necessarily appropriate for anyone else. They should, hopefully, stimulate individuals to develop their own strategies.