HFES Conference in San Antonio, Part 4 – Hearing and Understanding

The paper described in this post was part of the Aging Technical Group sessions at HFES.

Hearing Levels Affect Higher-Order Cognitive Performance – Carryl L. Baldwin, George Mason University

http://www.flickr.com/photos/banlon1964/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Perhaps I was excited by this talk because I could see how the information could be used in the book Rich and I are working on. This presentation was a fascinating exploration of the types of trouble adults over sixty-five might have with auditory interfaces. These problems are not necessarily related to the function of the ear: in general, older adults may have more poor hearing, but it is due to environmental exposure rather than aging of the ear. Many older adults show no detectable hearing loss, yet still have trouble with auditory interfaces, as found by Carryl’s experiment.

An important contribution of this paper was the connection found between decline in a sensory ability (hearing) and decline in cognitive ability, even on tests that had no auditory elements. Carryl addressed this years ago in her article Designing in-vehicle technologies for older drivers: application of sensory-cognitive interaction theory. Essentially, when most of us study cognitive aging, we either omit or control for sensory ability. For example, in my work, all older adults must have corrected vision of 20/40 or better and if there is any auditory component, must meet hearing level requirements.  Sensory ability may well predict their task performance, but I do not study it.

Carryl pointed out in her talk that even older adults with no measurable hearing loss showed worse working memory capacity as stimuli got harder to hear. This was true for younger adults as well, but the older listeners were harmed differentially worse as the stimuli dB levels decreased.  It isn’t hard to see why telephone menus and other auditory interfaces can be so frustrating: what requires more working memory than a softly spoken voice menu with 9 options? Eek.

Take home messages:

“The observation that scores on an assessment of working memory capacity decreased in young listeners indicates that hearing level, irrespective of age, can impact performance on aurally presented working memory tests.” (p.124)

“…functional hearing level may play a substantial role in the performance of older adults.  Subclinical hearing loss may result in the need to expend greater effort to process test stimuli – thus compromising performance in higher order stages.” (p.124)

Primary Sources

Baldwin, C. (2009). Hearing Levels Affect Higher-Order Cognitive Performance.
Baldwin, C. (2002). Designing in-vehicle technologies for older drivers: application of sensory-cognitive interaction theory. Theoretical Issues in Ergonomic Science, 3, 307-329.