The inability to distinguish spatial cues is known as spatial hearing loss. For example, if a person suffers from spatial loss of hearing, they would likely be unable to tell where a sound came from. They would also have a difficult time picking one person’s voice out of a crowd. People with this condition find it hard to cut out background sounds in noisy areas, such as bars, restaurants, or movie theaters. Perhaps surprisingly, the ear is not the source of spatial hearing loss. Instead, it is thought to occur within the brain pathways that interpret noise.
Spatial loss of hearing is especially common in children as well as adults over the age of 60. However, it can occur in anyone, regardless of age. This can be especially frustrating for children in school – they find it hard to differentiate the teacher’s voice from other noises in class.
Audiologists are able to diagnose spatial hearing disorder with a test called the Listen in Spatialized Noise-Sentences, or LiSN-S, test. This test measures how well a person can use pitch and spatial cues to distinguish speech among background noise. This allows the audiologist to know just how severe the hearing loss is.
Spatial hearing loss does not always occur on its own. These conditions include loss of high-frequency and/or low-frequency hearing. These issues can be treated with hearing aids, which helps with the spatial loss of hearing as well. Hearing aids aren’t a magic bullet for everyone. In fact, for some sufferers of spatial hearing loss, hearing aids can actually make the problem worse.
As to when spatial hearing loss happens, it often happens later in life, as audio nerve damage occurs for a variety of reasons including the normal aging process. Age-related spatial hearing deficits may occur because of medications, injury, vascular insufficiencies, or underlying medical conditions and diseases. If you notice sudden hearing loss within a twenty-four to seventy-two hour window, seek medical attention right away. Illness, infection, or blockages can cause sudden hearing loss – and they respond positively to immediate treatment. If an infection or other underlying illness is causing the sudden loss of hearing and is not treated immediately, it could progress to the inner ear, seriously damaging auditory nerve pathways and resulting in permanent deafness or loss of spatial hearing.
A person experiencing sudden changes in hearing involving unilateral hearing loss also has an increased risk of spatial deficit. If you’re not sure if your hearing is changing, you should go get it tested right away.