The silent danger of noise-canceling headphones.

15 Apr 2024

Noise canceling headphones offer a tech bro solution to the world of sound. They consider everything in their natural environment as “noise” that they can cancel out, allowing you to listen exclusively to your devices. The technology is generally considered good for your ears by reducing overall noise levels. you are exposed. But while noise-cancelling headphones are good for our hearing, it's a myth that the technology is entirely good for us.

Online forums are full of people complaining about ear pain, nausea, and headaches from noise-cancelling headphones. These forums largely share the same conspiracy theory: that active noise cancellation (ANC) is dangerous because it puts harmful pressure on the eardrum. However, that's not entirely correct either. According to David McAlpine, academic director of Macquarie College Hearing, there is a simpler explanation: not listening to your surroundings is unnatural. McAlpine says noise-cancelling headphones reduce the volume reaching your ears, which is good for your hearing. Using ANC probably means no need to drown out background noise by listening to music at high volumes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends listening to loud sounds for long periods of time can lead to hearing impairment.

However, too much noise reduction can be dangerous. McAlpine says your brain overcompensates for RAN by increasing its internal gain. This creates a “hearing loss” as operating at a higher sensitivity alters your neural pathways. McAlpine wrote an article in 2011 coining the term “hidden hearing loss,” referring to our brain's inability to process sound, rather than our ears' inability to hear it.

“If you have a hearing loss, it's like changing the encryption in your brain,” McAlpine said in an interview. “Even if you can change what you're listening to, you may not return to the brain state you had before. It is not reversible.”

McAlpine describes what happens when people enter his university's anechoic chamber, a virtually silent environment. He says people feel disoriented and describes a pressure. in the head and ears. The sensations are remarkably similar to when people use prenatal care. The common thread is that your body is not made to experience total silence, which is why people react poorly without background noise. There is a disconnect between what you are experiencing and what you are experiencing. audience.

“Loud sound damages your hearing, so there are situations where noise-cancelling headphones benefit you,” McAlpine said. Noise (characteristics of the soundscape) is essential to orient yourself in an environment.”

A 2012 study by McAlpine's co-author on “Hidden Hearing Loss” asked 17 subjects to wear earplugs for a week. Eleven participants developed tinnitus, a common illness. medical condition where someone perceives a ringing or humming sound without an external source. The study showed that audio deprivation can affect the way your brain processes sound, even if your ears are not damaged. However, the condition disappeared after the subjects removed their earplugs, so you don't have to worry about Your noise-canceling headphones giving you tinnitus in the long term.

So while ANC may be good for your ears, it could mess with your brain's ability to hear. The truth is that every time you use ANC. You are listening to the world with a different sensitivity, what McAlpine calls an “altered state of gain.” Spending enough time in this state can make it difficult for your brain to “listen” at normal audio levels.

“I think we've let big tech companies co-opt our listening habits, monetize them, and sell them to us. McAlpine said. “Your solution to the hearing problem is probably creating a listening problem.”

There are a couple of myths surrounding noise canceling headphones. The first is courtesy of big tech who claim that noise-canceling headphones are their solution to the noisy world. As McAlpine says, they're solving one problem with another, an all-too-familiar strategy in technology.

The second myth is that ANC is somehow bad for your ears. Wirecutter's testing found that Apple Airpods and other popular headphones reduced noise by about 10 dB, which may not be as effective as they claim, but it's still better than nothing.

ANC works by emitting a sound wave that is exactly opposite to the surrounding noise. The two waves, from the environment and from the headphones, effectively neutralize each other resulting in that artificial silence you've loved.

However, it is understandable to believe that because something hurts your ears, it is bad for your ears. And the myth has its roots in some truth. If you find ANC painful in any way, the technology could be altering your brain's perception of its environment and triggering some sort of instinctive discomfort. Noise canceling headphones have become quite common in our society because the modern world is getting louder and louder. Cars, airplanes, construction, and electronics contribute to a much noisier world than our ancestors had. Likewise, our hearing problems are getting worse, as our brains and ears struggle to keep up with the changing times.

The problem that noise-cancelling headphones attempt to address is a serious one. Noise pollution has been linked to a higher rate of cardiovascular disease, and is increasingly recognized as a harmful pollutant, similar to air and light. Additionally, other studies have found that noise-cancelling headphones can help improve your focus.

So we are left with a trade-off. Noise-cancelling headphones may protect your ears, but continued use can disrupt your brain. listening ability. Ideally, you should only use noise-cancelling headphones when you are exposed to excessive noise. On trains and planes, or in a noisy city, they're probably a good idea. However, if you are in a quiet environment, you may be better off simply listening to the world around you.


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