On December 12th, 2017 we learned about

Even as an adult, language is easier to listen to in your right ear

The next time you have a bad connection for a phone call, make sure to listen to the call with your right ear. Your phone won’t know the difference, but the sound of the caller’s voice will be easier to understand because of the way our ears are connected to our brains. Most language processing takes place in our brain’s left hemisphere, and that side of the brain is more directly connected to your right ear (along with everything else on the right side of your body). While both ears can theoretically capture sounds equally well, your brain will do a better job of parsing speech if you give it this small assist, especially when there are other competing sounds.

You probably don’t notice this right-ear bias too often in your daily life, because most adults can basically compensate for it. Children’s brains, on the other hand, are still learning the complicated task of sorting and filtering all the different sounds that may or may not be relevant to speech, and so the right-ear bias is more pronounced. By age 13, most kids seem to have this auditory puzzle sorted out, but researchers wanted to confirm that it’s truly eliminated in adult hearing.

Finding the limits of parsing language

To find out how well a person can juggle sounds in their right and left ears, researchers employed what’s known as a dichotic listening test. Using headphones, test participants would hear different verbal statements in either ear simultaneously, such as “I have a red car” on the right and “You eat ice cream” on the left. They then had to report which side heard what, and hopefully repeat both phrases back entirely. As expected, most adults had little trouble with this task, at least up to a point.

Hearing these sounds wasn’t any special challenge for people’s ears, since one word is as tough to hear as another. Since the point of failure would likely be in people’s brains, researchers tried increasing the number of words or list items that people needed to keep track of at a time, putting pressure on people’s working memory. Once each ear had more than six items to keep track of, the right-left bias reemerged. As people’s memory demanded more attention, the efficiency of the connection between right ears and language processing boosted people’s performance by an average of eight percent.

So the efficiency of listening to language with your right ear isn’t really lost after age 13, but most of the time it just isn’t needed. Earlier testing likely missed this, because they hadn’t demanded very much of people’s brains. When you’re in a challenging listening environment, or feel like you’re just juggling a lot of stimuli at once, save your brain some trouble and try to listen in with your more reliable right ear.

Source: Want to listen better? Lend a right ear, Science Daily

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