The remarkable engineering of hearing aid algorithms


A few years ago the creation of advanced algorithms for digital hearing instruments was described as a “breakthrough.” And although algorithm seems like a big word, it’s actually pretty easy to understand. Basically an algorithm is a set of steps used to accomplish a task.

So today’s algorithms tell the minicomputers inside your digital hearing aids how to sort and categorize various noises and environments. And they do this in a way that is similar to how your hearing brain works. Yep, your brain hears.

Your hearing brain compensates for any shift in environment and for disturbance in background noise.  It does this automatically. No muss. No fuss. In order to accomplish this same task, hearing instruments use algorithms to distinguish different sounds, sorting and classifying millions of sounds in the blink of an eye. And that’s important, because when you have hearing loss, the task of sorting sounds becomes more difficult. Which is one reason why hearing loss can cause exhaustion as people strain to hear.

In the past, hearing aids were designed to amplify all sounds. They didn’t do this important job of sorting and categorizing and letting you hear only what you needed. Basically, older hearing technologies treated someone talking to you in an elevator and elevator music the same way. But that’s not how we hear naturally. That could get annoying.

That’s why assistive listening devices were first invented, to help with problems that hearing aids might have with distance and background noise. Since the development of more and more sophisticated algorithms, digital hearing aids have been able to solve issues like feedback, whistling, wind in noise, and the so-called “cocktail problem” or background noise problem. These remarkable algorithms have done this task so well, that in one study people with hearing loss who used hearing aids actually heard better in background noise situations than people with average hearing. Hearing aids filter out the sounds we don’t want to hear while enhancing the ones we do want to hear.

That’s pretty amazing! Especially if you think about what hearing instruments have to do to achieve this remarkable feat of engineering. Background noise can come from one direction, many directions (like wind), can be stationary, or can move around, or it can be bounced off the acoustics in a room. It can include sounds like fans, car engines, people talking in the next room, sharps squeals, and muffled creaks. And that’s not all. Because, let’s face it, you move around a lot. And when you move, you’re entering or exiting different acoustic environments while creating your own kinds of sounds—the swish of a coat or the breeze as you walk. You transition rapidly all day and just assume your hearing will keep up.

Today’s hearing aids can keep up! Advances are out there that allow the hearing aid to compensate automatically for environment and background noise. Thanks to algorithms, hearing instruments can analyze millions of sounds in the blink of an eye and deliver the ones you want to hear.

Better still, because hearing instruments are basically little computers, they also have the ability to learn what sounds you prefer and which you’d rather not hear at all. In other words today’s hearing aids not only mimic your natural hearing brain through sophisticated algorithms, they adjust and learn just like your brain too! If you’d like to learn more or to take a hearing instrument for a test drive, let us help you get connected with a hearing professional in your area.

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