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How many times have we heard a person called a “great listener?” Or witnessed a fight between friends or partners over complaints of “you never listen!”? What’s so hard about listening if it’s just hearing?

Listening and hearing mark the difference between conscious and subconscious action. Hearing is regarded as a subconscious action for people with functioning hearing; even people who wear hearing aids hear sounds and words subconsciously. To understand what those sounds are connected to and what those words mean involves an active step to the conscious: listening.

Listening requires attention, and attention is actually a very flexible process that can be triggered in several ways. The simplest form of attention is the startle, triggered by loud noises that are countered with a primitive response such as a hunching of the shoulders or a slight jump. Next is stimulus directed attention which can be caused by your name being called or an unexpected sound. This is referred to as a bottom-up response by neuroscientists. However, when you’re actually paying direct attention to something, such as a television show or a friend telling a story, this is known as a top-down­ response in which your brain focuses on the task at hand.

Think of hearing as a bodily function that only needs an operational auditory system to work but listening is more of a skill that requires good old fashioned effort. However, when the listener is hearing impaired, making that effort can be especially challenging. Thus, the gap between hearing and listening is harder to bridge for those who suffer from hearing loss. Not only that, but studies about the brain’s ability to change, known as neural plasticity, have found that when parts of your brain are no longer being utilized, they will actually change their function. The phrase “use it or lose it” is especially true for listening because a person’s brain, and more likely the brains of people who are hearing impaired, may not be getting enough stimulation.

Thankfully, it’s not all bad news as there are ways to improve listening skills.

1. Get a hearing aid

For people who suffer from hearing loss, listening can be tough because for whatever reason, their auditory system isn’t functioning perfectly. To remedy this, a hearing aid can certainly help the hearing impaired become better listeners. Not only this, but studies have also shown that hearing aids give the user better brain function,  renewed self-esteem and allow them to be more social>, which can arguably help them be better listeners

2. Use Closed Captions

Believe it or not, subtitles are a fantastic way to improve listening skills. Listening to a movie or TV show while reading the captions at the same time is a form of comprehensive auditory rehabilitation which will help strengthen listening skills. This is good news because there are plenty of ways to access captioning services outside of the television.

3. Try out LACE

LACE is the brainchild of audiologists at the University of California at San Francisco and software veterans of Silicon Valley. It is an auditory training program that helps retrain the brain to comprehend speech and listen. Compiled of a series of interactive exercises, LACE is a great way to bring new understanding and boost those listening skills to a higher level.


by Esther Shasho