The Importance of Binaural Hearing

Have you ever heard an unexpected noise around you and instinctively turned your head in the direction of where it came from? That impulsive reaction to search for the source of a sound is actually our brain working in harmony with our ears to create what's referred to as binaural, or directional, hearing.

This is sometimes referred to as Directional Hearing, as this is essentially the way our two ears and brain are able to determine the direction that a sound is originating from.

If the sound is clear enough, you can even get an idea of which direction the sound is moving at times. The feeling can seem so inherent to us that we can sometimes lose sight of the effect that hearing loss can also have on one's sense of direction.

Two components help you locate sounds:

Your brain

The brain processes information coming from the ears, establishes the volume of the sound, determines its distance, and triangulates the source to figure out where the noise is coming.

If we only use one ear instead of two, it becomes a lot more difficult to locate the origin of a sound. When someone experiences hearing loss in both ears, it's equally difficult to locate sounds, since the brain has less information to process. 

Your ear shape

The shape of the outer ear has evolved over time in a way that makes it easier for the inner ear to obtain sounds coming from various locations around you.

For people with single ear hearing loss or dual hearing loss, there are hearing aids that communicate with each other, like the Widex Dream or Starkey Muse. These devices can determine the directionality of sound. Also, a “Digital Pinna” has been developed by Widex to improve normal sound intake.

These types of devices have a feature called Cross and Bicross (Contra-Lateral Routing of Signal), that allows one device to send an optimized sound signal to the device located in the other ear.

Can directional hearing loss be improved?

There are a few hearing aids that offer this capability, but the wearer needs to be using one on each side, even if there is a total hearing loss in just one side.

Your audiologist should always emphasize the importance of wearing two hearing aids at all times. You wouldn't watch a movie with one eye closed, or listen to your favorite song with only one headphone in, using hearing aids is no different.

These devices collect sounds from both sides, filtering sounds and feeding to the good hearing side in a way that helps the wearer determine direction. It also can be a benefit for lower frequency hearing loss.

A good example of how this affects day to day situations is social environments, where multiple speakers talk at different times, moving their heads and changing the direction of the sound. When both ears hear these voices, the brain can determine where the sounds are coming from.

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