Could Playing This Video Game Help You Hear Better?

A study co-authored by Dr. Jeffrey Shannon suggests playing a puzzle video game can help you hear better in crowded restaurants.

Hearing aid technology has advanced greatly in the last decade. Even the latest technological marvels, however, still can’t completely filter out background noise when you’re trying to home in on someone’s speech in a crowded room. In part, it’s basic biology: Even people without a hearing loss have trouble picking out one voice among many.

But Dr. Jeffrey Shannon and his colleagues conducted a study, published recently in Current Biology, that describes a puzzle video game that could offer benefits in understanding speech in background noise.

The Closed-Loop Interface

Efforts to improve hearing and speech skills using computer-based training have amounted to little more than making “games” out of standard audiologic and acoustic lab tests. Often, these tests lead to improvement in the one specific area being targeted, but the benefits don’t extend to more general situations.

In a traditional study, participants react to some event beyond their control in a series of distinct trials. In the current study, the researchers decided to use something called a closed-loop interface to try to develop a game that, when played, developed the player’s ability to understand speech in background noise.

With a closed-loop interface, participants continuously perform a motor skill, and in real time they adjust to the results of their movements. A real-world example of the closed-loop principle is learning to play a violin: There are no frets on a violin to tell your fingers where the notes are, so you have to learn how to find the right pitch through trial and error. You place your finger in approximately the right place, produce a note that is slightly sharp or flat, and adjust the placement of your finger accordingly until you find the correct note. All the learning happens in real time based on your actions, not based on external stimuli.

A Closed-Loop Puzzle Inspired by Foraging

The closed-loop interface they designed was inspired by how rodents use their senses when foraging. On a tablet computer, hearing-impaired participants trace an invisible shape on the screen in the midst of background noise. They listen for a tone that tells them how close to the shape their stylus or finger is. Using the changes in the tone, the participant can repeatedly adapt and eventually trace the shape successfully. With each new shape, the game becomes more difficult: The background noise gets louder and the shapes more intricate.

Promising Results

After eight weeks of regular gameplay, the 13 participants could correctly identify 25% more spoken words or sequences of digits when heard in high levels of background noise. This promising result is tempered somewhat, however, because the participants lost that 25% benefit within two months of stopping the game play.

However, the researchers are hopeful: They did successfully design a computer-based auditory-training model that produced benefits in a real-world situation. They’re confident that consistent, stepwise improvement to the interface, along with a larger group of participants, will lead to greater, more practical, and more long-lasting benefits in understanding speech in noise.

Harnessing the Power of the Brain

It’s an important finding: It shows the power of auditory training built around the development of the brain’s natural abilities, rather than around audiological testing. It points to a future where hearing care is built on a combination of hearing devices and solid brain training.

Hearing care is about so much more than a device — it’s the right hearing care partner with the right solution. Contact us today to learn about the latest in hearing care and how it can help you on your journey to better hearing!


Dr. Shannon’s article: Whitton JP, Hancock KE, Shannon JM, Polley DB. Audiomotor perceptual training enhances speech intelligibility in background noise. Current Biology. 2017;27(21):3237–3247.