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While it is not yet clear how big a role the dimmer switch plays in the cocktail party problem, Frisina's work "makes a good case that it's got to be one of the important factors," said Charles Liberman, who directs a research laboratory at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.
Another crucial element lies within the inner ear, where sound is converted to nerve signals. That's accomplished by cells that use delicate hairs to detect sound waves. These hair cells can be damaged by aging and by long hours in loud environments like rock concerts.
Loss of those cells makes it harder to understand speech in noisy rooms. For example, it can hinder one's hearing of high sound frequencies, like those of certain consonants. Losing those consonant sounds can make words hard to understand in noisy situations.
"What you're hearing is more of a mumbling sensation than actual clear speech," said Anne Oyler of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
While scientists continue to study hearing problems, people who have trouble understanding their fellow partygoers can take some steps to help themselves. Oyler suggests facing the speaker directly to get facial cues that might fill in some blanks. And don't be shy about admitting the problem and suggesting a move to a quieter place.
"A lot of people, even some people with normal hearing, have trouble hearing with background noise," Oyler said. "You can say, 'I'm sorry, I'm having trouble hearing you. I want to know what you have to say.'"
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