By Liv Davies
The precision to which we can hear sound is crucial to our communication, and how we perceive the world around us. You may assume that the noisier the background, the worse the accuracy and precision of our hearing is. This seems logical, as sitting in a noisy bar makes its hard to hear a friend! However, researchers at the University of Basel, have uncovered that a specific type of noise, called white noise, can effectively increase the precision of a person’s hearing.
Researchers compared people’s hearing from a quiet environment to that of a subject that was also listening to white noise. White noise is a type of sound that combines tones of all different frequencies together. They found the brain was able to distinguish more subtle differences in the frequency of sounds when white noise was played. This baffling phenomena was noticed in the specific hearing section, the auditory cortex, of a mice’s brain. Neuroscientists noticed that when white noise was played, inhibition of nerve cells in this region was shown. Inhibition of these particular nerve cells is known to contribute to increased distinction in the differences of the tones played. Since precision of hearing can be defined by the accuracy that one can distinguish between different tones, the researchers concluded that white noise may increase the precision of hearing within these mice.
These findings have huge impacts on people who are hard of hearing. Professor Tania Barkat at the University of Basal who lead the experimental research, noted that cochlear implants could be modified to include white noise in order to increase the auditory acuity of patients with these types of implants. This could lead to patients with these hearing impairments having better quality of life.