Friday, January 14, 2011

When it hurts to hear

kw: medical conditions, over sensitivity

In the book I reviewed yesterday, Zero Decibels, author George Michelson Foy describes two persons who built special "quiet rooms" in which to work or sleep, Marcel Proust and Joseph Pulitzer. Both probably suffered from auditory hyperesthesia. In this condition which can be either short-lived or chronic, sounds most of us consider ordinary are unusually distracting or even painful.

I have read of two persons, originally thought to be autistic, who were greatly helped by special training to overcome their aversion to sound and noise. A training regimen called Auditory Integration Training has arisen and is helpful to many. Children in particular may find it difficult to express that they are overwhelmed by others' daily noises and agonized by the shrieks of playing children or the shouts of an angry parent.

Sometimes such training is not sufficiently helpful, and a person just needs to wear earplugs most of the time. A supply of modern, foam, insertable ear plugs could have saved Proust and Pulitzer much discomfort. So, perhaps, could a pair of noise-canceling headphones; several popular ones are reviewed by CNET here.

When I really want quiet, I use a double system: Foam inserts, good for 30dB, and a bulky pair of headphones, unplugged, which add another 20+ dB. Then it takes a bit of a shout to get my attention. With the inserts alone, I can hear ordinary conversation just fine. I have, I think, quite normal hearing, but I have been in overwhelmingly noisy environments (a Huey helicopter, for example), where without noise protection I just could not function. Imagine if your refrigerator's hum was just as distracting as the engine of a helicopter!

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