Written by Jesper Kock
Sound can profoundly alter our state of mind and has the power to influence our thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. Today we communicate using complex linguistic systems, yet these modern systems are the product of a much more ancient relationship with sound. When we speak, we communicate not only with the words we choose but with the patterns of sound we create and the movements that create them.
Contrary to popular belief, humans do not perceive sound through the ear – the ear is a vehicle to the brain that perceives and translates a series of electronic nerve signals. At EPOS, we understand that to make sense of sound, we must start with the brain. By understanding how the brain works and how sets of electrical pulses inform our perception of sound.
With much of the global workforce continuing to work remotely, background noise continues to be a major threat not only to our productivity but to our health. With workers largely unaware of its effects, it is only by addressing these concerns that we can begin to unlock new levels of wellbeing and productivity.
Unlike other senses, the brain is much slower to respond to sound as it finds it trickier to switch between stimuli. For instance, when on a conference call that is marred by audio issues including background noises, interference, echoing the brain works harder to focus on what the most important source of sound is. Sound affects us psychologically, cognitively, and behaviourally, even though we are not aware of it. In simple terms, speech perception in adverse listening situations can be exhausting and can easily result in brain fatigue.
It might start with noise annoyance. But if an individual is exposed to these types of sounds it can lead to an incremental build-up of fatigue and stress over time. When audio sensory overloads flood the brain, cortisol (the stress hormone) is released. In excess, cortisol can inhibit the functions of the brain’s prefrontal cortex – this is the very hub of emotional learning and processing that enables us to regulate thoughtful behaviours such as reasoning and planning.
Chronic brain fatigue and increased levels of cortisol can lead to long term issues. Exposure to noises that activate a stress response will inevitably wear an individual down, causing both mental and physical problems. When extrapolated over a period spanning days, weeks, and months this can have a surprisingly detrimental impact on your wellbeing. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports that intrusive and interruptive background noise can increase your stress levels and exacerbate stress-related conditions like high blood pressure, migraine headaches, and even coronary disease.
Auditory information plays an important role in guiding our other senses and has a profound impact on not only what we hear but what we feel and think. Defining what constitutes “bad audio” is quite simple, in the most macro of senses there are loud interruptive sounds that trigger an instant evolutionary response. For instance, when someone experiences a stressful noise, the amygdala – a region of the brain that contributes to emotional processes responds with a distress signal to the hypothalamus which then tells the body to pump adrenaline into the bloodstream. Then there are the micro and consistent sounds and ambient interruptions that can have a hidden impact on our overall wellbeing.
We know that noisy environments and external conversations are barriers to productivity. What is also increasingly apparent is that audio interference and disruption can have a stark impact on performance. Jeopardizing comprehension, time optimization, and increased stress levels.
The 1973 Manhattan Bridge Apartment Study is an excellent example of the effect noise can have on our brains. The study looked at a 4-story high rise apartment building in Manhattan that spanned the interstate highway, people living in the building were exposed to high levels of interruptive noise from the incessant traffic – with the average sound level at approximately 84 dBs on the lower floors. The study concluded that for the children living closest to the ground, the interruptive noise was so significant that it impacted on cognitive development and auditory discrimination. After 4 years of monitoring, it was concluded that children living on the lower, noisier floors had a harder time distinguishing similar words, such as “thick” and “sick.”
Even smaller increases in unwanted sound can have a significant effect. Multiple studies have shown that people living near airports or motorways can have an impact on an individual’s long term wellbeing, with one study suggesting that people living in areas with more road traffic noise were 25% more likely than those living in quieter neighbourhoods to have symptoms of depression.
From a technical perspective, our R&D process is tangentially influenced by our positioning with the Demant Group, we consider all aspects of hearing health. We assess which sounds are required and which constitute as pollutive. What might interfere or interrupt a user? When an individual is engaged in a discussion over the phone it is important to ensure that external sounds that are interruptive are removed – amplificant noises from the individual’s environment or other people need to be erased to allow for the individual to focus and process on the audio stimulus that they need.
There are basic standards and regulations set out in Europe that must be complied with, for instance, statutes in Europe state that at an absolute maximum individuals shouldn’t be exposed to more than 85 dB over a full working day. We believe that if you are exposed to unwanted noise, this will have an incremental impact on your overall wellbeing. In an increasingly busy and demanding world where individuals are constantly on the move and multi-tasking, people only need to be exposed to the sounds that they want to hear.
However, as we get busier filtering out what we need and what we do not need becomes more complex. As technology has proliferated and working habits have evolved, the volume of telephone calls, conference calls, and teleconferences have increased in turn. We are now working from different locations and facing new challenges; your device needs to meet these new needs. Audio is now merging with technology in new ways that harness adaptive technologies such as AI and Machine Learning, this means we’re reaching a place where audio devices can learn about the sounds that a user wants to hear and can filter out the rest. Whether this is the sound of a person talking in the background or traffic.
Remote communication encourages flexible working, but also has its downsides. According to an EPOS study, 44% of end-users report poor sound quality while making phone calls, and 39% the same with internet calls. Conversely, good audio enables an individual to collaborate and communicate clearly and efficiently.
The EPOS R&D team harnesses over 115 years of expertise in sound innovation to design products that work in synergy with the ear and brain to enhance sound experiences and protect us from harmful audio. For users in a noisy environment, devices with active noise cancellation offer an effective solution to reducing background and unwanted noise to boost productivity and performance. We build headsets that provide users with the benefit of passive noise cancelation but add an extra level of noise reduction by effectively removing lower frequency sound waves.
We have raised the bar of ANC technology with our latest ADAPT product series, which uses pioneering Hybrid ANC technology. These solutions are specifically designed to adjust to the noise challenges of open office environments and beyond. Hybrid active noise cancellation utilizes a four-microphone ANC system. This detects ambient noise and generate anti-noise to cancel it out before it reaches the user’s ears. The result is a dramatic increase in the worker’s ability to concentrate in noisy environments and boosts general wellbeing throughout the working day.
We can also now remove all unwanted noises and enhance the users’ voice, as we have developed headsets that can isolate and pick up only the sound of the person who is speaking – even if they are in an environment with a lot of unwanted stimuli. There are several exciting concepts and developments on the horizon – we can look forward to artificial intelligence becoming increasingly embedded in audio solutions, as well as solutions that provide augmented hearing and an increase in demand for voice-controlled devices.
Jesper Kock is vice president of Research and Development at EPOS