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Cognitive Column - May 2014

One of the benefits of being retired is that it is fairly easy to fit in a little holiday just when it suits. I’m currently enjoying a week in Andalucía, that fascinating part of Southern Spain that was once under Moorish rule. One of the downsides associated with being of retirement age is that hearing tends not to be quite what it was. Now, I find the Spanish (at least in that Southern area that I know best) to be very noisy. I doubt that it’s the result of some strange genetics, bequeathed by their Arabic ancestors; far more likely that it’s because they spend so much time outside. In their benign climate it’s still warm late into the evening, so people eat outside, and many gather around the town square, children playing and adults chatting. I use the word “chatting”, but it is conducted at a higher volume than our use of the word implies. I remember once being very amused by two elderly Spanish ladies (inevitably dressed in black) standing in conversation in the doorway of a house (inevitably painted white). Eventually, one left to walk up the street, but the conversation continued until she was out of sight around the next corner. The fascinating thing is that they did not have to raise their voices to maintain this long-range communication; it had been loud enough from the start! In the open air this is mildly disconcerting, but what about indoors?

The bars and cafés of Southern Spain lack nice warm carpets and curtains; they don’t need “nice warm”, they want “nice cool”. They also want an easy-toclean surface because in the long, hot, dry Summers everything gets very dusty and requires frequent washing down. So, bare tiles and marble surfaces are the order of the day. Whereas soft furnishings absorb sounds, hard ones reflect them, producing multiple echoes. Put into this acoustically challenging environment a barman engaged in jolly banter with a customer in the furthermost reaches of his bar, then between the two arrange a couple of dozen “chatting” Spaniards, and you have a recipe for cacophony! If you tried to make a recording of the noise, say on an iPhone, you would find that the result was in large part simply indecipherable. The problem is that the recorder uses only one microphone; humans do better because we have two ears. Depending on the direction of its source, a sound generally gets to one ear slightly ahead of the other, and also tends to produce slightly different levels of intensity at the two ears. The brain is able to use these differences, to work out the direction a sound is coming from, and in so doing makes it easier for us to focus on one conversation, while ignoring those going on in other parts of the room. So far so good, but what about all those echoes? They come from every direction, confusing the location system and blurring the ‘parent’ sound to which they belong. Well, our clever auditory system can deal with that too. It detects exactly the same sound coming from another direction and a moment later it suppresses the second sound, so cutting out the echo. It requires two, very wellfunctioning ears to perform this trick, and there is no doubt about it: as one gets older the trick is not performed so well. If your ears are young and fully functional you can still get a feel for this. Go somewhere with plenty of reflective surfaces and few covered ones (bathrooms often fit the description) and get some sound going – play a radio for example. Now put a finger in one ear. You should immediately be aware of an increased “boomyness”, because your brain is no longer able to suppress the echoes. What to do if your auditory system is a little more mature and functions like mine? Well, just order another drink and try to ignore the hubbub!

Very often speech can still be understood in noisy surroundings, as a result of the context. While a single word may be hard to decipher, if it is made part of a sentence it immediately becomes clear because the surrounding words will tend to point to what it must have been. This should help the hard-of-hearing but not necessarily, it would seem, if their hearing loss is age-related. It has often been observed that older people find it hard to follow speech when there is a lot of background noise, and the difficulty was assumed to be entirely due to hearing impairment. However, in a recent paper [Janse & Jesse, 2014, Quarterly J. Experimental Psychology] it is reported that a declining working memory in the elderly makes it difficult for them to quickly develop and update a semantic representation of an unfolding sentence. Not only will this make them slower to grasp what is being said, but also, if it is being said against background noise, they will not be able to use the context to make up for poor hearing.

I have heard it claimed that the CIA employed psychologists, so that they could develop profiles of foreign leaders, making it easier to predict how they would behave in a given set of circumstances. One could imagine that most world powers would attempt some such procedure, but if they do, the West seems to have been getting it very wrong, while Russia has been spot on. Perhaps the latter have retained good observational techniques from Pavlov, while some areas of psychology in the West seem to have been losing all touch with science. The West applauded the uprisings in Syria, yet did little tangible to support them. The days of President Bashar al-Assad, they said, were numbered, and he couldn’t possibly last much longer. Well, there he still is, presiding over genocide and general mayhem, and brazenly standing for reelection. All of this has happened with nothing more terrifying than a severely wagged finger from the West – oh, and lots of fine words of course. Russia, on the other hand, appears accurately to have predicted the course of events, and carefully positioned itself accordingly. Some might claim that Russia helped to make the events go this way, but that’s as maybe; the important thing is that they knew the West had no stomach to do anything else. While the West was still deploring the absence of democratic rule in Syria, they made clear their delight with the overthrow of an elected president in Ukraine. Why shouldn’t the Crimea subsequently have its own uprising? Once again, Russia has judged things perfectly, with the entirely predictable outcome now unfolding before the startled gaze of the impotent West. In their own countries, Western leaders may still find that lies, soundbytes and spurious statistics can pass for intelligent resolve and informed action, but on the World stage they are utterly out of their depth.

Well, that’s all thoroughly depressing – I think I need another drink. One of the nice things about the Spanish way of doing things is that you don’t pay each time you order drinks; you simply settle the bill at the end, much as we do in a restaurant. Well, I can’t leave yet, because I won’t be able to hear what the barman says when I ask how much I owe. I shall just have to stay drinking until enough people have gone home that I can hear myself think. The Spanish keep awfully late hours; I could be here some time!

There’s an anniversary edition of the Newsletter coming out soon, so I will “see” you there.

Very best wishes,

Peter

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